The 4 Toxins That Make Your Life Hard – Stonewalling
Stonewalling – that pesky way of hiding to avoid interaction. Have you had a chance to read my previous blog posts where I introduce the first 3 toxins – criticism, defensiveness, and contempt? If so you may already have an idea of which one you tend to default to when it gets a bit too much. You will also have an understanding of how counterproductive they are to healthy and thriving relationships. Hopefully, you have made some valuable discoveries and initiated conversations within your relationships about how to behave when one or more of the four horsemen come galloping. The last of the four toxins that Dr. Gottman discovered is damaging to our relationships at both work and in life, is stonewalling.
Toxin 4: Stonewalling
Stonewalling includes cutting off communication through silent treatments, refusals to engage, tuning out, emotional withdrawal or withdrawal by leaving the room. Evasive maneuvers such as turning away, acting busy or engaging in obsessive behaviors are all examples of stonewalling. It is a natural reaction when we can no longer handle what is thrown at us or when we feel overwhelmed and psychologically flooded. Stonewalling becomes a method of self-care when enough is enough.
When someone is headed into overload, their heart will be beating rapidly, their hands can feel clammy, and they can feel dizzy or about to explode. As with all the other toxins, this reaction is not productive for a trusting culture and healthy relationships, although very normal.
Stonewalling is often a consequence of the other 3 toxins as they escalate. Trying to communicate with someone who is stonewalling is both impossible and horribly frustrating. It can backfire into contempt and cause the whole thing to repeat itself indefinitely.
Learn to recognize the signs of stonewalling, whether in yourself or in the system around you and take the time needed to calm down and regain balance. First of all, stop the interaction that caused you or someone else to stonewall. Take a break and do something that clears the mind. Listen to a piece of music, go for a walk outside, drink a glass of water or just breathe. Avoid focusing on the situation, blaming or stepping into righteousness. Do not enter into a conversation about what just happened while you are still flooded. When it is time to go back to the conversation, agree to proceed without blame, criticism, contempt or stonewalling. Listen to each other from a place of curiosity and openness and be willing to see the other’s perspectives. Listen without judgement.
What are my internal signals that I am headed towards stonewalling? What will help me calm down and handle this in a way that is constructive?
What comes next?
I don’t believe that it is humanly possible to never again step into a toxin, but here is the good news: When you fail, you can repair the damage by apologizing. Own your part of what happened and take responsibility for it. An honest and sincere apology goes a long way to repair damage and build trust.
The next step is to be proactive and become what Dr. Gottman calls relationship masters. One way to work towards mastery is to create agreements around how you will behave when the toxins show up.
The four toxins will never completely dissipate, but successful relationship masters handle the toxins in constructive ways. Create agreements on how you want to be when one or more of the toxins occur and build structures that will support your agreements. The positive spin-off effect of reducing toxic communication is increased trust, creativity, respect, and optimism.
Relationship communication tool
Set context for why you are having this conversation. Create agreements on how you will handle the toxins by working through the following questions:
- What kind of atmosphere will support us and help us thrive and be at our best?
- How can we say what needs to be said without resorting to criticism/blame, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling?
- How do we want to be together when one or more of the toxins show up?
- What structures and specific behaviors will support us?
- individually and together – what new behaviors will we commit to and be accountable for?
- What are the consequences when we fail?
- How will we celebrate success?
You can use this tool as a family, in a partnership, with friends, at work or within any group of people that is important to you. I have used this tool within my own family since my children were small. Going on vacations, clearing assumptions, being open about expectations, designing how we would be together when we were tired, sick of traveling, disappointed or simply wanted something different. Being clear about expectations and creating predictability as much as possible allowed us to have the most outstanding experiences together, even when flying from Norway to Australia with a 7-year-old and teenagers with too long legs for comfort.
Check in regularly on how you are doing to help strengthen your commitment to the agreements you’ve made and check to see if something needs to tweaked to work better.
Last but not least
This is so important! When someone apologizes to you, remember to accept the apology. An apology or repair bid that is not accepted or acknowledged can be more damaging than the toxin or the conflict itself. If you are so flooded that you simply can’t accept the apology, acknowledge that you have heard what was said and let them know you still need some time. Then come back when you are ready. Do not take too long though – if you leave it to the next day you start from scratch.