We are continuing our exploration of effective communication by looking deeper into the effect of contempt in personal and social relationships along with a few ideas about how to escape the habit of contempt for others.
Last month, the focus was on John Gottman’s research on contempt as an avenue to destructive negativity in relationships (See link below).
By harboring contempt for the other person, we begin to ignore, then forget, our partner’s positive qualities. Gottman calls it the “immediate decay of admiration.” This negativity seeps out whether subtly or openly, fostering the growth of relationship-destroying negativity.
Here’s your “take-home message:” To counteract and overcome contempt, purposefully and outwardly express appreciation and respect which will strengthen fondness and admiration. Fondness and admiration are the very antidotes to contempt.
What is it about contempt that makes it such a relationship destroyer?
It spurs us to turn another person into a one-dimensional caricature of themselves or of some fearful object. It causes us to think of another person as “the other,” as different, separate, alien and less-than.
We feel justified in negatively judging the other. We neglect to think that the other person may have extenuating circumstances or a backstory, or even a good reason for doing whatever it is they’re doing that we abhor. Contempt aids us to fall into the trap of either/or thinking, even though life is usually in between somewhere filled with positive, negative and neutral aspects.
We deny the multidimensionality of the other person and our relationship with them. And we let ourselves conveniently off the hook for our own part in the problem. And our own part in the solution.
Contempt seems to be pervasive these days. We hear it on social media. Of course, it’s notorious for that. We hear it on television. We hear it in conversations with our friends and family. We harbor it ourselves in our own thoughts. It even has its own sound; a certain cadence; a certain inflection; a certain tone.
Certainly, it has its own language. We know what’s coming when we hear that sound, almost like a code, and we find ourselves falling right into that cadence.
What we may not realize, though, is that the feel-good snark is severing relationships. Through contempt we are being uncivil. Contempt and incivility are threats to our social fabric. Another’s uncivil behavior is not an excuse for our own. By fostering this separateness and severing personal and social relationships in this way, we sow division. With division comes rigid opposition.
Positive change in personal and social relationships is hard to come by when rigid opposition is in the driver’s seat. Renowned community organizer Saul Alinsky once said that relationality is at the core of social movements.
In other words, challenging the status quo requires being in relationship with others and we cannot do that when we are full of contempt for them. John Morley wrote “On Compromise” in 1874. Forty years ago, I saw the Ben Shawn poster of this quote in the library at my nursing school and it has stuck with me ever since: “You have not converted a man [sic] because you have silenced him.”
By refusing to be contemptuous of the other — by being civil — we are opening up relationships as we confirm and maintain our shared humanity with all-around us.
How to overcome the habit of contempt?
Absolutely, this is not easy. Nevertheless, breaking this habit is simply a skill. Like any other skill it takes practice to perfect.
We will need to be able to sit with discomfort — to sit flexibly with complexity.
Approach it as a challenging yoga pose.
Ease into it.
Give yourself time to get better at it.
Don’t abandon the work.
Listen deeper to discover what the other person is really worried about or fearful of.
When you hear the feel-good snark in your head, countermand it. Tell yourself, “Wait, there is something more to find out here. I may abhor the behavior but I don’t have to hate this person.”
Relinquish that either/or polarized thought.
Go for “both/and” — be able to find the great, the not-so-great and the neutral in one person all at the same time.
Find something you can respect or appreciate in this person.
Try all of this with a public figure with whom you are not personally close but whose behavior you really don’t like. It’s easier to practice when the emotional investment in the personal relationship is not on the line.
Remember what Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see.”
We can do this.
We must do this.
Nothing in this article is meant to be medical advice. Please consult your health care provider.
Some information above taken from:
“Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…and How You Can Make Yours Last” by John M. Gottman.
Callie Wight is a California state-licensed registered nurse with a Master of Arts in psychology.