Toxic Communications

We’re all told about the value of building effective relationships at work.

But these carefully nurtured relationships can sour quickly if staff uses toxic communications styles. And, once these styles become entrenched in an organization, morale, productivity and performance suffer.

Seattle psychologist John Gottman, Executive Director of the Relationship Research Institute, outlines four toxic styles that can spell disaster for intimate relationships. And, these styles can damage workplace relationships too.


Whether at home or work, becoming defensive when someone is trying to discuss a problem blocks effective resolution. The style is commonly used by couples in trouble, or workers receiving feedback about their performance or treatment of other staff. When staff become defensive, they are feeling criticized and attacked. So they feel the need to fend off the attack. But they end up blocking suggestions that might improve their performance. Explaining away the behaviour, blaming someone else or refusing to accept the comments and to change are hallmarks of a defensive communication style.

A better approach to handling feedback is to adopt an open, curious style. Maybe there is something to learn. Remaining curious and receptive to what the other party is saying can be difficult, especially when we feel certain we are right. Listening intently to feedback and absorbing what we’re hearing without rebutting it, all while ultimately trying to integrate the news into our behaviour, increases our chances of learning and growing in the workplace.


This communication style tends to elicit defensiveness. Admittedly, it is difficult to remain non-defensive in the face of a critical colleague or boss. In a recent interview, Vancouver psychologist John Anderson observed that criticism is most noticeable when the critic focuses on what wasn’t done well while ignoring the positive contributions made regularly.

A critical style is one that highlights another’s personal faults rather than looking at what needs to be resolved. When an attack is made against someone’s character, it is difficult to find a solution to the problem. Staff are left demoralized and angry after interactions like these.

To combat a critical communication style it is necessary to see what is going right, what is being accomplished and to acknowledge people’s efforts. When discussing a situation that needs attention, be sure to focus on the issue at hand and refrain from making things personal. Watch for comments like,“You aren’t holding up your end.” Instead, try: “The document came after the deadline. I’m wondering what happened.”


Instead of deploying a defensive or critical style, some prefer to keep information to themselves. They put up obstacles to prevent resolution or either appear to be ignoring what’s being said, say nothing or actively disengage. Another stonewalling technique is to talk too much. By dominating the conversation, the stonewaller causes others to back down, tire or abandon the effort to resolve the issue. In this way, the stonewaller gets his way, stalls resolution and drains staff energy.

People end up feeling like nothing is going to change and they’re right—many stonewalling personnel only appear to be saying “yes” to a new idea or solution while in reality they’ll do nothing.

Usually stonewalling is a sign that staff are feeling anxious and threatened, according to psychologist Greg Banwell of Wilson Banwell, a Vancouver-based corporate-development company. “Stonewalling is a safe place for some people since anxiety-provoking topics can be shut down”, says Banwell.

Resolving stonewalling requires establishing a vision of the future that helps people understand priorities and offers them a sense of control. Answering the question, “What are we trying to accomplish?” can help end resistance to change, new ideas, difficult feedback and bad business news.


Gottman’s research finds that contempt is the most harmful style for communicating in relationships. If people treat each other with contempt, they impart disgust, condescension and revulsion. This damages the relationship almost beyond repair and can show up in the workplace under the guise of harassment. Stephen Flamer, a Vancouver psychologist, said in a recent interview that contempt in the workplace can be subtle. “People don’t have to show visible contempt. They can refuse to answer a person’s email, or give out trivial assignments.” Other contemptuous behaviours can include ignoring phone calls and requests, gossiping, eye-rolling in meetings and snickering at others. The contemptuous workplace culture is adversarial, patronizing and demoralized. The key to ending contemptuous communication at work is identifying the disrespectful style and replacing it with a more respectful set of behaviours. This could entail creating a “code of conduct” based on how people in the workplace want to be treated. For example, this may mean pledging to end eye rolling in meetings and holding each other accountable for listening and giving everyone their due. Obtaining a set of rules about how we are going to behave with each other is key and ensuring there is follow through is even more important.

Toxic communication styles can take a toll on personal relationships and wreak havoc at work. Being able to identify these ways of communicating and understanding what the antidote to each might be, is the first step in building effective relationships at work.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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