Renowned marriage therapist John Gottman, in his book 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, speaks of four different communication styles that lead to the destruction of any relationship, especially marriage.

Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.

Although Gottman specifically dealt with intimate relationships, the phenomenon has become equally prevalent in political discourse.

Political dialogue has always involved criticism; each party attempting to win votes through critiquing their opponents’ policies and ideas. But in more recent times the criticism has dug deeper, evolving into a critique of the character of the opponent; they are no longer wrong, they are evil.

The next “horseman of the apocalypse”, to use Gottman’s terminology, is contempt. The inability to see any value in the other. Contempt breeds contempt; it’s impossible to respect someone who holds you in contempt. When leaders treat one another with condescension; refusing outstretched arms or tearing up speeches, they successfully role model contempt. Nelson Mandela had every right to hold Afrikaners in contempt but didn’t; a true moral leader cannot stoop to that level.  

The next descent is into defensiveness; when one feels unjustly accused, they play the victim to ward off the attacker. They not only respond defensively, but often reverse the blame onto their opponent. When a non-defensive response could have expressed an acceptance of responsibility the defensive response only served to inflame the situation.

The last stage is stonewalling; when the listener completely withdraws from the interaction. Rather than confronting the issues, the stonewaller will tune out, turn away, act busy or engage in distracting behaviours. Stonewalling is the decision to disengage completely.

This is the “State of the Union”…

To prevent society from descending into civil chaos, where groups of differing opinions- whether they be on the economy, climate or social welfare- refuse to even engage with one another, we need to learn to listen rather than to speak.

Shimon, his son, said “All my days I grew up among the Sages, and I did not find anything better for the individual than silence”.( Pirkei Avot 1:17)

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