The four horsemen

The four horsemen

According to Patrick Lencioni, in his book “The five dysfunctions of a team”, the pillar to build a high performing team is trust. Without trust, we cannot go further in enhancing performance and results.

In this trust building process, communication is key; therefore, talking about some communication patterns, that can make it difficult, makes sense. Let me tell you about the four horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

Being able to identify these communication patterns and having some resources to prevent them taking over your purpose is a good deal. Of course, the four horsemen reference is only a metaphor to describe how these patterns could end a relationship (and therefore, make it impossible to build a team). John Gottman did bring this concept after a massive research on relationships and has many learnings for those leading teams.


“You never think about others”; “you never listen to my opinions and always work alone”. The list with examples is endless.

When you express your feelings or ideas this way, you’re committing an ad hominem attack: there’s not a specific issue you’re complaining about. Therefore, the other person can feel rejected, assaulted or hurt; and the violence can easily escalate (think about how you actually react when you feel attacked).

To avoid this kind of pattern, you need to rise your awareness about the impact this behaviour might produce and be assertive. A positive way to talk about your feelings is by using “I” statements and express what you need.

“I feel rejected when you refuse to listen to my opinions. I need you to listen what I need to say” creates a complete different impact in your counterpart.


When violence in a conversation escalates because of criticism, contempt’s appearance could be a matter of time. Contempt implies treating others with disrespect, use sarcasm, mock them or use body language such as eye-rolling.

“You’re an idiot; I don’t listen to idiots’ opinions”.

Contempt is the worst of the four horsemen because its impact damages the other’s self-confidence and weakens dangerously the relationship. Contempt somehow implies a position of moral superiority (I am more than you).

To fight against this, you must work in building a culture of appreciation. Everyone has positive qualities and does some things right.

Respect must rule in every relationship, no matter how deep the disagreement could be. And this is a mindset, some people forget.


The third horseman is a typical response to criticism: defensiveness. We all become defensive when we feel attacked or humiliated.

But even in front of good feedback, we can develop a variety of excuses instead of taking responsibility for what have happened.

“I’m too busy, you know it. It’s not my fault I don’t listen, I have many things to do”.

To avoid falling into this behaviour, we need to stop making excuses and victimizing ourselves; acknowledge what happened and take action. We need to understand the other’s perspective and offer a solution.


Last, but not least, we have stonewalling. This is the usual response to contempt, and it occurs when we simply cut down our communication channels. We get shocked and struggle with what is happening. We feel overwhelmed and unable to respond. Therefore, we stay still, quiet.

This doesn’t mean we accept what is being said. We just cannot respond and just need to find a healthy state of mind to get back into the conversation.

To get out of this situation, we need to ask for time, take a break to get back on track. And we should ask for it. Maybe it’s not the right time for us having that conversation, or we feel despised and need to recover.

If you lead people, you need to create the right conditions for the communication to happen. Educating in these toxins, the four horsemen, and their antidotes is a good starting point that should be followed by your example.