Have you ever noticed that how you start a conflict discussion determines how it will end? If you start out harshly, your discussion is likely to end harshly. However, if you start out gently, it is likely to end gently. That is why Gottman Method Couples Therapy recommends and teaches softened startup. If you use this skill in your conflict conversations with your spouse or partner, your children, or even your coworkers, chances are that your outcome will be much better.
We do not need much training in order to use softened startup. We use it daily with guests and strangers. When a guest leaves his or her cell phone in our home, we do not say, “What’s wrong with you? You are constantly forgetting things. Be a little more thoughtful, for God’s sake. What, am I your slave to go picking up after you?” Rather, we use softened startup and say something like, “Here. You forgot your cell phone.” When a guest spills wine, we do not say, “You just ruined my best tablecloth. I can’t depend on you to do anything right, can I? I will never invite you to my home again.” Rather, we say, “The wine spilled. No problem. Would you like another glass?” We are respectful of a guest and we take care of the guest’s feelings, even if things don’t go too well. However, we often forget to do so with our spouse or partner or children and instead use “Harsh Startup.”
Harsh Startup is the opposite of softened startup. Harsh Startup is when the way the problem is presented involves Criticism (a direct attack on the character of the person), not just complaining. A pattern of harsh startup, particularly when used by the wife and responded to by the husband with defensiveness, is predictive of marital dissolution.
Softened startup is basically the way we treat guests and strangers – respectfully and courteously. When you break it up, it has five components.
- Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You” to avoid blame. Complaining is okay, but criticizing is not. Criticism is a direct attack on the character of a person and is often accompanied by words like “always” and “never.” Psychologist Thomas Gordon noted that when statements start with the word, “You” instead of the word, “I,” they are usually more likely to be critical and to make your partner defensive. Instead of saying, “You never listen to me,” it works best to start your complaint with a statement of how you feel, like, “I feel upset…” Don’t cheat and form an “I” statement that is actually a “You” statement like, “I think that you don’t care.”
- Describe what is happening, don’t evaluate or judge. Instead of accusing or blaming, just describe what you see happening as objectively and non-judgmentally as possible. For example, instead of saying, “You never talk to me,” say “I has been a few days since we have talked with each other.”
- Talk clearly about WHAT YOU NEED IN POSITIVE TERMS: What you wish for or hope for, and/or what you want more of (versus what you don’t want). What is it, ideally that you want or need in this situation? Instead of asking your partner to guess what you need or to be a mind reader, express it explicitly. For example, instead of saying, “I’m tired of cleaning up after everyone,” say “I would appreciate it if you would put your dirty dishes in the dishwasher.”
- Be polite. It doesn’t cost anything to be polite. Make requests politely, adding such phrases as “please” and “I would appreciate it if…”
- Give appreciations. Noticing what your partner is doing right is always the best way to go. If your partner has, at some time, been better in this situation, then ask for what you need and couch it within an appreciation of what your partner did right in the past and how much you miss that now.
Be Specific! And Don’t Store Things Up! Be specific in your complaint and avoid global criticism, but don’t store things up. We all know what happens when you store things up: they eventually come out in a fit of anger or rage or in a litany of complaints.
If you follow these rules for softened startup, you will find that your conflict discussions will be easier and have better outcomes. If you would like to learn more about these and other skills for managing conflict in your relationship, you might consider attending an Art and Science of Love Weekend Workshop provided by a Certified Gottman Therapist & Couples Workshop Leader. If you are a therapist and want to learn more about Gottman Method Couples Therapy, consider attending a Level 1 Clinical Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy.
Gottman, J.M., & Schwartz Gottman, J. (2013). The Art & Science of Love: A Weekend Workshop for Couples. Seattle, WA: The Gottman Institute.
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Three Rivers.
© 2020 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities