Magill Counseling Associates, LLC
Magill Counseling Associates, LLC
in Ephrata, PA Ph: 717-219-5711

4 Horsemen of the Argument Apocalypse

By - rmagill
10.12.20 03:40 PM

Think back to the last conversation you had that didn't go well. You probably didn't start the conversation wanting it to turn into an argument, but it happened.

There's four things that will very quickly, absolutely destroy a conversation you're trying to have. Probably at least one, if not three or four of these, were present in that conversation. These are the Four Horsemen of the Argument Apocalypse, as researched by the Gottman Institute.


The first one is a criticism.. Criticisms personally attack a person or what they do. They include statements like:

  • You never
  • You always (something they do, like "ignore me")
  • Why can't you just
  • You can't

A Gentle or Warm Startup can help to prevent criticism. This follows the When - I Feel - I Need pattern.See the post next week for more information about this.


Contempt has more of a focus on attacking someone's sense of worth, tear someone down, etc. Contempt is looking down on someone that they can absolutely never, under any circumstances do something, right. They include statements like:

  • You are worthless
  • You are horrible
  • You always (something about their character, like "lie")

A counter to contempt is to build on viewing them in a positive way, and to share how you do appreciate them. The Sandwich Method can work well for this: Complement them, give constructive feedback, compliment them again.


The next one is defensiveness. And that's just like it sounds, when we feel like we have to justify or defend what we do. This includes statements like:

  • I just
  • I did that because
  • I only
  • That's not true

And the counter to defensiveness is to take extreme ownership for that. When a conversation deteriorates,most of the time both sides in some way contribute to the breakdown. Take ownership for whatever the other person's mentioning, You probably had some role in it. Look for your role, what you can agree with, and let the other person know. Taking ownership can move the conversation forward quickly and powerfully. Even if there is nothing they are saying that you can take ownership for, you can take ownership for your response to them.


Stonewalling is ending the conversation or changing topics as a way to avoid what's being talked about. This includes statements like:

  • I'm done talking about this (out of anger, not a boundary)
  • Maybe, but (and the topic changes, often a criticism)
  • Just leaving

One of the pretty effective counters for is to take an intentional break, Take a 15-20 minute walk or run. It doesn't really matter how, but find a way to calm down, reset a little bit, and then intentionally get back to having that conversation. This is different from stonewalling because there is a plan to resume the conversation, while giving everyone some time to calm down and reset.

These concepts are very powerful to have a productive conversation. Sometimes, though, couples counseling, or group counseling can be helpful to put these into practice.