The toxic tendency of asking "why" in conflict

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The toxic tendency of asking "why" in conflict

In a heated, conflicted moment recently, I heard a voice inside me asking, “how did I get HERE?” and realized I was spending more time trying to figure out why the situation was happening than I was taking action to the change direction—to the detriment of the conversation.

What I’m realizing is that in conflict there is a tendency to fall prey to what John Gottman* calls “toxic” behavior. He names BLAME, DEFENSIVENESS, STONEWALLING and CONTEMPT as the four “wild-horsemen of the apocalypse.” In the situation described above, I found myself subtly blaming the other person for causing me to react the way I did, which caused them to get defensive about their behavior, which caused me to shut down (stonewall) and give up, causing an unfortunate downward—toxic—spiral.

What might have been different if I upgraded that default response to something more like, “what do I (or we) want here?” or “what’s important about what we’re talking about?” If I am willing to claim full responsibility for MY portion of the circumstances, then perhaps that toxicity can be avoided. Moving from a “why?” to a “what?” kind of question seems like a simple way to change direction.

Gottman says that we all have one of these behaviors as a default response. So, in the spirit of upgrading my default response, I’m going to begin noticing more how I’m either contributing to the toxicity or not. I wonder what might be different in difficult conversations and what might be possible?

* Ideas from John Gottman’s book “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work” are being used in many settings from coaching teams to resolving organizational conflict.