The Four Horsemen


I got asked a tough question the other day; something that spoke somewhat to my character and, when I stopped to think about it, my leadership abilities. My immediate response was to become uncomfortable, to shift and squirm internally as I wrestled with the reality of what was being asked. Then it happened… I got defensive. And all hopes for a rational conversation flew out the window as instead I prepared myself for an attack - gladiator style. If my character was going to be called into question, well, this other individual didn't know what was coming.

Unfortunately, my response isn't an unusual one. Even more regrettable, this individual (who happened to be right in her assessment of my behavior) wasn't intending or desiring to walk into an all out character war. She simply wanted to help me grow. Instead, she got the reaction of an individual attempting to prove their innocence when "guilty" is written all over their face.

It took stepping back from our interaction (after releasing a few low-blow jabs) and allowing my emotions to dissipate some before I was able to acknowledge the truth of her words. But why couldn't I have just engaged in a healthy conversation in the first place?

According to Dr. John Gottman (1994), one of the leading researchers in relationships, there are four common negative reactions we can have when it comes to communicating. When we hear something that hits close to home the likelihood of one of those reactions coming out, whether we like it or not, increases tenfold. The four negative reactions, which Gottman likes to affectionately refer to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are:

  1. Criticism: Attacking the other person's personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong

  2. Contempt: Attacking the other person's sense of self with the intention to insult

  3. Defensiveness: Seeing self as the victim, warding off a perceived attack by making excuses, disagreeing, and/or cross-complaining, and responding with the ever popular "yes, but…"

  4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict (Gottman, 1994)

Each one of these reactions has the power to shut down a conversation in the blink of an eye, and we’re more likely to respond in one of these four ways when we are conversing with someone in our inner circle. When a person who knows us well points out a flaw, a mistake, a brief error in judgment, or perhaps an ongoing issue, we can’t help that our emotions get involved. However, we miss out on crucial information that can help us grow and develop when we engage one of the horsemen.

So, what does it take to build more effective communication strategies, which in turn will influence positive change in our progress towards becoming greater than leaders?

First of all, know which horseman you tend to deploy. Knowing your weakness and radically accepting its ongoing presence in your life is key to initiating behavioral change.

Second, as a leader be committed to taking the time to listen to the tough questions and keep the ponies at bay! Listen to hear, don’t listen to respond. Yes, it will make you squirm. It will be uncomfortable. But I’ve never heard anyone say that great leaders come from easy circumstances.

Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. New York: Simon and Schuster

Deb Gorton