Toxic Behaviours – Will Your Relationships Survive, Thrive or Die?

As a relationship system’s coach, I work with a wide variety of partnerships and teams. At one end of the spectrum are those that work really well together and deliver great results, whilst at the other are those that are severely disabled by conflict and fail to work as one. And what stands out is that those that struggle the most are those that generally display the greatest levels of toxic behaviours. 

What is are Toxic Behaviours?

Toxic behaviours are negative, unhelpful behaviours which, if present to any great degree in a relationship, will damage its well-being and effective functioning.

The Gottman Institute, pioneers in relationship research, monitored the relationships of married couples over time and published some interesting findings. Gottman identified 4 key behaviours that are present in non-healthy relationships: blame/criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. As human beings at some point we are all likely to display some of these behaviours. In the heat of the moment or when we are tired, it is easy to say the first thing that comes into our head and unskilfully express what we think or feel. However, if these toxic behaviours are present to any great extent within a relationship, the relationship will suffer and potentially fail.  

The 4 Toxic Behaviours

For each of the 4 toxins there is usually an underlying positive intent. Under pressure we succumb to instinctive, emotional responses that result in unskilful behaviour playing out. There is some good news though. With a bit of awareness and conscious thought we can replace these toxic behaviours with alternative, more helpful and positive ‘tonics’…and ultimately bring our relationships back to full health.

1. Blame /Criticism

How to recognise it: This type of behaviour is recognised as judgmental language focused on attacking both personality and behaviour and often includes generalisations. E.g. ‘you are inconsiderate', ‘you are always late,’ ‘you never buy me flowers’ or ‘it is your fault that…’ There is a focus on the problem and any intention to work on the solution gets lost. Words will often be accompanied by an aggressive tone of voice and body language.

The underlying intention: When blame is present, there is usually an underlying desire for higher standards or for something to be better. By blaming someone else we are often deflecting that responsibility away from ourselves…after all it’s easier to let someone else carry the can than admit our own shortcomings. Criticism may be the result of inexpertly delivered feedback by a manager to team member or a failed attempt to hold someone to account.

Tonics for blame/criticism

If you feel tempted to blame or criticise:

  • Allow yourself thinking time before you react and if need be take time out
  • Focus on solutions and what you want, rather than the problem
  • Focus on strengths rather than shortcomings and be generous with praise – looking for the good in others helps build a climate of positivity
  • If there is a desire to correct or improve, deliver your feedback in a considered and constructive way, focusing on giving specific examples rather than making generalisations. Describe behaviour that you find unhelpful rather than personality, and be prepared to share how you feel.
  • Look for the part you have played and be prepared to admit it

If you are the subject of blame:

  • Avoid a defensive response, instead listen for the 2% truth in what is being said – what is your contribution and responsibility?
  • Clarify, asking for examples, if you are unclear as to what is being said
  • Seek to understand what is needed to resolve the situation 

2. Defensiveness

How to recognise it: In defence, an individual will stop listening and be closed to feedback or advice. They then may mishear or misinterpret what is being said. In an attempt to feel safe, they will deflect blame or justify their own position using phrases such as ‘it wasn’t me, it was…’ or ‘I was only doing that because...’

The underlying intention: Defensiveness is a natural defence mechanism we show when we feel under attack or threatened in any way, and often when it has hit a raw nerve. It is a way of helping us to feel safe. Perhaps someone is inexpertly giving us feedback or blaming us for something didn’t do or maybe we have misheard or misunderstood the other person. But perhaps we are reacting defensively because we are being blamed for something we did do or played a part in. Unfortunately, as it is often blame in disguise, a defensive response will perpetuate a conflict situation rather than resolve it.

Tonics for defensiveness

If you feel tempted to be defensive:

  • Give yourself time to respond rather than react
  • Listen carefully to what is being said, then repeat what you’ve heard and clarify that you have understood correctly.
  • Even if you feel the criticism is unjustified look for the 2% truth in what is being said…there is usually something to learn

If someone is defensive towards you:

  • Aim to create safety in the conversation – why might this person feel defensive and how can you create an environment where that person feels receptive in this conversation?
  • Clarify what they have just heard or understood – maybe there is a misunderstanding in communication
  • Show that you are listening and understanding

3. Stonewalling

How to recognise it: Stonewalling encompasses a range of behaviours all involving cutting off communication in some way. This includes giving someone the silent treatment, a refusal to engage in conversation, withdrawal from a relationship, not replying to emails, tuning out or not expressing what you are thinking.

The underlying intention: Frustrating for others on the receiving end, stonewalling is another instinctive human response when someone does not feel safe. By disengaging, whilst it allows an individual to gain a sense of safety and even power within a situation, it prevents open, honest feedback and solutions to be found.

Tonics for Defensiveness

If you are tempted to stonewall:

  • Identify what is holding you back from speaking up, what your fears are and what this is telling you
  • Differentiate between fear and actual danger – your fears may not be born out in reality or the consequences not as great as expected
  • Establish safe ways of communicating that will allow you to express yourself without reprisals

If someone shows these behaviours towards you:

  • Look at your own behaviour that may be threatening the other person’s safety – have you shown defensiveness, blame, contempt or judgement, when they have previously tried to speak up? Do they have a reason to not feel valued?
  • Find ways to encourage them to open up so they feel safe to engage.

4. Contempt

How to recognise it: Contempt, often regarded as the most potentially dangerous of these toxic behaviours, manifests itself as sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, name-calling, hostile humour or belligerence. It might be disguised as banter but very soon turns into the far more insidious behaviour of bullying.

The underlying intention: Contempt is an unskilful attempt to express thoughts, often ones that have been simmering over a long period of time. It often arises when there is little understanding or respect in a relationship where individuals are not valued and the focus has been on shortcomings rather than strengths. But contempt can also arise when someone demonstrates just those traits you may have in yourself that you don’t want to admit to and may be an attempt to disassociate yourself from those behaviours.

If you are tempted to show contempt:

  • Seek to understand, acknowledge and value those you feel tempted to show contempt towards.
  • Identify any underlying causes of the contempt – they may point to your own shortcomings and parts of yourself you do not value
  • If something needs to be said give feedback in an open, honest, direct and constructive way
  • Stop sarcasm and cynicism and other misdirected ways to be funny

If someone shows contempt towards you:

  • Express your own feelings, being clear about any unwanted behaviour and describing its impact on you
  • Seek to understand what has triggered their behaviour and your willingness to resolve

How much is toxic?

At what point do these behaviours become a problem? A team or organisation may be able to withstand small doses of toxic behaviours. This will vary from relationship to relationship. What is known is that behaviour breeds behaviour and once these toxins become ingrained in the culture of a team, department or organisation they can have a catastrophic effect, from which it may not recover. More research by the Gottman Institute highlighted that those relationships that flourish most have a ratio of 5 positive interactions (an interaction being words or gestures) to 1 negative interaction. 

Case Studies

There are two starkly contrasting teams I have worked with that come to mind when I think about toxic behaviours. One is a small, driven, entrepreneurial start up, the other a larger team within the public sector.

Case Study 1: The entrepreneurial company comprised of a small team of emotionally intelligent individuals. From the outset, they spent time considering how they would work together and how they would iron out differences when they arose. These agreements were written into a team charter. When disagreements did arise, they took time out to listen to each other, talk things through, challenge and give feedback to each other constructively, and find agreement on how to move forward. Whilst occasionally blame and criticism surfaced, this was quickly dispersed as their ways of working things through prevented any escalation. This team continues to grow and thrive.

Case Study 2: In contrast, the other team, under severe external pressure, operated in a permanently toxic and emotionally-charged environment. As I worked with them, a huge amount of blame, criticism and defensiveness dominated their conversations, some team members refused to join in discussions and there was deep-seated contempt for others within the system. It is probably unsurprising that this team could not survive, let alone thrive and ultimately some major decisions were made about the fate of this team which saw this team dispersing.

If you are interesting in discussing this article or finding out more about how to help your teams thrive please get in touch.