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Effective Communication is at the Heart of Sustainability – Reflections of an Alpha Leader

At Alpha we value effective leadership. We believe that empowering leaders allows everyone to do their best work.  Being an effective leader starts with effective communication. It sounds simple, but the best leaders are skillful in their communication in ways far beyond simply providing clarity. They pay attention to the small details of how they show up because that is where things can go really well or really wrong.

In a recent email to my school leadership team, I discussed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Contempt. Criticism. Defensiveness. Stonewalling. Coined by John Gottman, a well known psychologist, these four indicators provide incredible insight into the health of our relationships. Based on studying these indicators, Gottman can predict relationship failure with over 90% accuracy. Pretty crazy right?!

So what exactly are the Four Horsemen?

Contempt – an expression of superiority that comes out as sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, or hostile humor

Criticismattacks the character of the recipient instead of focusing on a specific behavior

Defensiveness – self protection through righteous indignation or playing the victim

Stonewalling – occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation without resolving anything

Gottman talks about the impact of the Four Horsemen on marriages, but I would argue that they are applicable to ALL close relationships including those we cultivate at work.

Leading isn’t easy. And we don’t always show up as our best selves. When we don’t, we occasionally exhibit one of the Four Horsemen. It’s often very subtle and many times written off as a personality trait (e.g. sarcasm), but the reality is that these communication indicators damage relationships. For example, we have probably all experienced the meeting where someone is rolling his/her eyes or making quiet sarcastic comments to their peers in the back of the room. If you were the one at the front of the room leading, how are you feeling in that moment? How does this person’s behavior impact your relationship with them?

It may seem like a small thing, but in that moment, you’re probably not feeling positive about that relationship. You’re probably questioning your trust in that individual. From a culture perspective, this behavior is toxic. And if we are really honest with ourselves, in many environments, it goes unaddressed.

Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

So what happens when we exhibit any of the Four Horsemen? Is there a way to move forward? Luckily, yes there is. Gottman also provides us with the Antidotes to the Four Horsemen.

These strategies help combat negative communication and preserve/repair relationships, but it takes strict discipline. We have to recognize in the moment how we might be communicating and make a clear and deliberate shift.

The Big Picture

Tweaks in communication are about more than just creating harmony at your school site. Effective communication is at the heart of sustainability. Sustainability is not about making the hours shorter or reducing the workload. All those things can happen and people will still feel the job is unsustainable. Sustainability is about managing yourself. It is about doing the small things to keep a positive outlook, maintaining healthy, honest relationships, addressing conflict quickly and kindly, prioritizing your work, and managing your energy. It starts with how we show up. It starts with how we communicate with one another.

If we take the time to deliberately work on this, we will find ourselves more equipped to handle the challenges that emerge in any professional environment and will be better equipped for roles with increasing responsibility and impact.

Happy leading!