I recently read an article by John Gottman (relationship research psychologist) about contempt and I want to share it with you not only because of contempt’s devastating effect on marriages, but also in the politics of our country.
According to Gottman, contempt is the most harmful communication style in relationships. Contempt is belittling and disrespectful. Contempt mocks others with sarcasm and ridicule and assumes a position of moral superiority.
How can you be so stupid? You’re such a loser!
You’re tired?! Cry me a river. I’ve been with the kids all day, running around like mad to keep this house going and all you do when you come home from work is flop down on that sofa like a child and play those idiotic video games. I don’t have time to deal with another kid. Could you be any more pathetic?
In recent years, contempt has become the predominant style of communication in our politics. I am now reading a recently published book entitled Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt(Arthur C. Brooks). Interestingly, John Gottman has also addressed this issue as manifested in our political landscape. From political debates on television to comment threads on social media, we see people treating each other with contempt all the time. The dialogue has become “us” vs “them.” And that deludes us into thinking we’re better than other people. It’s dangerous.
We can start political reconciliation by talking about our shared why instead of our divided what. In John Gottman’s words, strong relationships are the basis of a stable society. And based on that statement, Gottman offers his Four Rules for a Better America. From this perspective, these are the things you can do to stitch America back together while still maintaining your points of view.
Rule 1: Focus on other people’s distress and focus on it empathically.
Empathy is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, an essential quality for successful relationships. You don’t have to agree with someone to empathize with them.
Rule 2: Keep your positive vs negative comments and interactions at a ratio of 5:1
Hmmm…You have the power to do this. The positive things you say versus the criticisms that you level should be at a 5:1 ratio at least. That means five affirming, praising, and loving tweets and Facebook comments for every critical one.
Rule 3: Avoid contempt with everybody, all the time.
No exceptions. It’s bad for you and it’s bad for the country if you treat anybody with contempt.
Rule 4: Learn to cooperate and have a dialogue with those with whom you disagree.
Seek out and be around people who are different than you. Before you speak, see if you understand what the speaker before you has said. Listen to understand, and then frame your rebuttal.
If we all follow these rules, together, we can make ours a better country.