The communication style that destroys relationships—at work and at home

Nix the sarcasm and the eye-rolls.
Nix the sarcasm and the eye-rolls.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Relationships can hit the rocks for all kinds of reasons. But according to renowned sex therapist Esther Perel, a single factor is a major predictor of whether or not a relationship will survive: whether the couple in question treats one another with contempt.

In her latest book, State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Perel asserts that contempt is the biggest killer of relationships. This idea originated with relationship psychologist John Gottman, who created Four Horseman theory—or the four communication styles most likely to indicate a relationship is doomed.

“In whatever form, contempt—the worst of the four horsemen—is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust,” Gottman says. “It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.”

As a career coach, I believe the same holds true in our relationships at work. Whether you feel contempt for your boss, contempt for a client, or contempt for your entire field or industry, feeling this way is a key indicator that something isn’t right. And if you don’t act to address the feeling, contempt is likely to poison every moment of your working hours.

What does contempt look like?

Common displays of contempt include sarcasm, cynicism, eye-rolling, mockery, sneering, hostile humor, name-calling. No wonder it’s the greatest predictor of divorce, according to Gottman.

Feeling contempt toward another person, or your job itself, tends to stem from long-simmering ill will and a sense of superiority. Maybe a coworker failed to meet a deadline, so your frustration manifests as distrust. Maybe your boss poorly manages their staff, leading to a chaotic workplace. Or you may find yourself resenting your entire profession for its bureaucracy. This feeling can be especially pervasive among people who pursue their passion as a career, but find that they enjoy it less once they have to rely on it for income and stability.

Contempt for the people around you doesn’t just affect them—the emotion makes it impossible for you to thrive. In a study conducted by Harvard decades ago, researchers found that negative or destructive relationships have a harmful effect on our health, happiness, and even life expectancy. Positive relationships, on the other hand help us flourish. In this sense, contempt isn’t just metaphorically toxic; it’s literally bad for you.

Appreciation as an antidote

You may feel that your contempt is valid. But unless you make a change, you’re likely to keep experiencing the same frustrations—at work and in romantic relationships—over and over again.

Let’s say you feel contempt for a colleague because you’ve been forced to pick up the slack when their work falls short. If you’ve previously dealt with the situation by rolling your eyes or making passive aggressive comments that convey your frustrations, you have to learn to approach conflicts differently.

In his research, Gottman found that for couples in crisis, fondness and admiration helped repair their bond. In the workplace, this looks like building a culture of appreciation. How? Start by cutting all verbal attacks and vicious thoughts.

Instead of using blaming and shaming (i.e., “You’re so unreliable,” “nothing ever gets done around here”), speak assertively to express your feeling, needs, and desired outcome in kind-but-firm manner: “When we fail to hit a deadline, I feel concerned. I imagine you’re busy and juggling multiple projects, which I know can be hard. I need you to fully prioritize this project this week. Would you have this back to be by Wednesday? ”

In addition, practice appreciation by looking for the upside in your colleagues’ traits. Have a candid conversation to explore how you ended up here, but more importantly, to unearth opportunities to move forward. Come to a shared understanding about what’s going well in your relationship, and how you can leverage those strengths.

Using motivation science to move past contempt

If you’ve recognized that contempt is putting you on the fast track to burnout, you can gain back a sense of control by focusing on the trifecta of what—psychologically speaking—comprises meaningful work. Research by Daniel Pink, author of the book Drive, indicates that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the three components needed to find happiness in what you do.

Let’s break down what each component involves and how you can apply it.

Autonomy: People who are autonomous have the freedom to direct their life and their careers.

In practice, this means seeking out jobs—or opportunities within your current job—that allow you to exercise control in some way. This might be something seemingly small, like adapting your work hours to fit your life, or on a bigger level, having the freedom to devote time to projects and ideas you believe are important.

Mastery: People who seek mastery have the desire to improve and meet their full potential.

In practice, being motivated by mastery means pursuing excellence and looking for new, innovative, better ways to do your job.

To put this into practice, you might work with mentor to deepen your craft or choose to take on stretch assignments or a side hustle. With so many books, podcasts, and even thousands of free university courses available, there’s no shortage of ways to become the go-to in your field.

Purpose: People who are driven by purpose are motivated by something larger than themselves, what leadership expert Simon Sinek calls a “why.” This means cultivating opportunities that align with your core values. If you realize that your current job doesn’t overlap with your core values, it’s probably a big part of your resentment.

It’s worth remembering that if your current job isn’t making you happy or fulfilled, you’re not resigned to a lifetime of misery. As Perel notes in a recent podcast with Lewis Howes, the most important feature of a relationship is that you actively choose to be in it. If you are able to pursue autonomy, mastery, and purpose in your current job, you’ll likely find ways to enjoy it. And if you can’t, it may be time to pursue something new—a realization that opens just as many doors as it closes.

Melody Wilding is a high-performance coach, writer, and speaker. Follow her on Twitter @MelodyWilding