Improving Communication In Your Relationships

Regardless of how strong are relationships are, there will always be times when we have a complaint that we need to talk about. So it’s important that we’re able to have these discussions without sparking a conflict, or having things escalate into a fight or argument. The best best way to do this is to learn how to soften our startups.

The term softening your startup was coined by relationship expert John Gottman. And you can learn more about softening your startup, as well as many other self-help strategies to improve your relationship, in Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Improve Communication by Softening Your Startup

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

One of the most common reasons people come for couples counseling is to work on communication issues. Now communication issues can refer to all sorts of different things. And there can be lots of different reasons why these communication issues are arising. But regardless of the types of communication problems you’re experiencing, if you and your partner aren’t able to communicate with each other about how you’re feeling or about issues that arise in your relationship, it is going to be almost impossible for that relationship to work.

So the first and maybe most important step in improving communication is to learn how to bring up difficult topics of conversation with our partners in ways that help lead to a resolution rather than to a fight or argument or any sort of escalation. And the key to bringing things up with our partners effectively is to make sure that we’re starting things off in a gentle manner rather than harshly.

Jon Gottman calls this softening your startup. He’s one of the most influential psychologists in the field of relationships. And in his research observing thousands of couples he’s found that discussions between couples generally end with at least as much tension as they began with. So if we begin our discussions by criticizing our partners or attacking them or coming at them from a place of anger, these discussions are probably not going to lead to a nice resolution. And it’s much more likely that they end with us still criticizing each other attacking one another and being angry at each other.

So instead of bringing things up harshly we need to soften our startups, and find ways to bring things up that invite discussion and resolution rather than provoking a conflict. Now when we do bring things up harshly the other person tends to respond in one of four ways:

They get defensive and start making excuses.

Or they fight and respond back harshly.

Or instead they opt for flight and just leave because they don’t want to continue being attacked, or they don’t want to talk about this now.

Or they freeze, either because they don’t know how to respond, or because they’re hit with a strong emotional reaction that’s overwhelming and prevents them from being able to think clearly and figure out what they want to say. And I’ll have a video coming out soon that looks at what we can do in these situations so please subscribe so you don’t miss it and I’ll put a link in the description once it comes out

So the key to a soft startup is to be able to express how we’re feeling and whatever’s on our minds without provoking one of these types of reactions from our partners. And one of the best ways to do this is to make sure that we’re communicating assertively, rather than aggressively or passive aggressively or passively, which might be the softest way of starting things up, but passive communication usually doesn’t lead to much communication at all, and we don’t get to say it was actually on our minds.

And a good way to think about assertive communication is with the acronym dear which describes the main communication skill in dialectical behavior therapy that i talk about in more detail in another video. Now dear stands for describe, express, assert, and reinforce.

So we start by describing the situation we want to talk about in as neutral and objective terms as possible. We want to stick to the facts without providing any interpretations or commentaries about the facts. The goal is simply to let the other person know what we’re talking about in a neutral manner that doesn’t provoke any emotional or defensive reactions from our partners.

So a harsh way of describing a situation who would be something like, you never help with anything around here, you’re an absolute slob, i don’t know how you can live like this. So if we start off harshly like that it’s going to be really hard for our partners to respond without getting defensive we’re getting upset and escalating things.

So instead we want to describe things more softly just sticking to the facts. I had to clean up by myself after dinner tonight. I had to go into the living room to get your dirty dishes from lunch. The distinction between describing the situation softly and describing it more harshly is that here, while we’re still complaining about the situation, we’re trying to do it in a way that isn’t explicitly criticizing our partners, such as i had to clean up by myself after dinner because you’re so lazy or because you’re such a slob. Because anything that comes off as criticism rather than simply as a complaint is almost always going to be met with defensiveness or with some sort of escalation as they criticize us back.

And then after we describe the situation, we express how we’re feeling about the situation. It’s important that we don’t assume they know how we feel, so we tell them directly. And we do it using i messages. So with i messages we simply use the word i to express how we’re feeling, often prefaced with a statement like, when this happens or when you do that, i feel like this.

So when I’m left doing the dishes by myself i feel neglected and angry.

Or when you don’t help clean up after dinner i feel alone and sad.

When we use i messages since we’re speaking about our own experiences and our own feelings, it can be easier for other people to hear without reacting negatively or getting defensive. Because we’re not criticizing them, we’re just expressing how we feel. And compare this to a harsher way of expressing how we feel about the situation like, i spend half my life doing housework, it’s like you think I’m your maid, which is not going to be received well and is more likely to spark a conflict than to lead to a resolution.

And then we assert what we’d like to see happen again using i messages. So instead of something harsh like you better start doing your share and stop expecting me to pick up after you all the time, I’m not your mother, we assert what we’d like more softly. It would be nice if you would help more around the house. I’d really appreciate that.

And finally we reinforce the changes we’d like to see. And in psychology reinforcement refers to rewarding desirable behavior. So in a harsh startup instead of reinforcing behavior we’d like to see with a reward we might threaten a punishment. You better start helping out more with the housework or we’ll see how you like it if i stop doing any work around here.

Whereas a softer startup could be something like, I’d really appreciate it if you’d help with the dishes, and then I’d spend less time cleaning after dinner and we could spend more time together in the evenings.

It would be nice if you would help more around the house, and then i wouldn’t be so tired and cranky all the time.

So a soft startup doesn’t necessarily mean our partners are going to like what we have to say or even agree with it. But it makes it much less likely that they react defensively or feel like they’re being criticized or blamed or attacked and have to attack us back.

Now one thing that can make softening our startups difficult is that we often bring things up with our partners when we’re upset about something. And when we’re upset it can be hard to start things off softly. Or we may even think we’re starting things off softly, but when we’re feeling really emotional our compasses for what comes off as gentle and what comes off as harsh can be a little bit off. And maybe we’re being really gentle compared to how we’re feeling inside yet are still coming across as harsh.

Or maybe our partners are just really sensitive and defensive, which often happens if we’ve been arguing a lot lately. So even though we are starting off relatively softly our partners perceive it as too harsh and things start to escalate almost immediately.

And so if we are really upset or annoyed or angry and want to bring something up with our partners, it’s important to take some time to make sure we’re feeling a little bit calmer first, and do whatever we need to do to manage our strong emotions before starting the discussion. Because the calmer we’re feeling, the more naturally a softer startup will come, which makes it easier for our partners to respond without escalating, and makes it more likely our discussion is going to be productive.

But why do we have to be the ones who go out of our ways to soften things up even when we think our partners are the ones to blame? Well it comes down to whether we want to resolve the situation or just make sure our partners know how upset we are with them. And if that’s our goal then we can blurt out whatever we want. But if we’re hoping to resolve the situation then the more we’re able to soften our startups the more likely it is we’re going to be able to work things out.

And before bringing up a sensitive issue it’s helpful if we can set the stage for the discussion signal to our partners that there’s something we want to talk to them about instead of just hitting them with it out of nowhere. This could be some expression similar to, we need to talk, but that’s often associated with a breakup talk, so we want something without that connotation, some code we have with our partners that means hey there’s some stuff I’d like to talk about with you.

So we could just say that, or can we talk about something, or even I’d like to have a conversation with you about something that’s been on my mind. And then we can ask if they’re okay talking about it now, or if we should plan something for later when we both have time and won’t be distracted. Maybe just after dinner but not too late when we’re both feeling tired and thinking about bed. And certainly not once we’re already in bed and at least one of us is trying to fall asleep.

So let’s look at a couple more examples. Nice to see you made it home in time to help put the kids to bed. Oh wait they went about an hour ago.

You don’t care about your kids. You don’t care about me. All you care about is your job. I might as well be a single parent.

You’d better start coming home in time to help put the kids to bed or me and the kids are gonna go stay with my parents for a while. I just can’t do this by myself anymore.

So this type of opening is obviously harsh. It’s not neutral. It doesn’t just describe the facts. We’re criticizing and being sarcastic and it’s not going to be well received. No one’s going to react well to this type of opening.

So a softer startup would be something like: you promised to start leaving work in time to help put the kids to bed they went about an hour ago and you weren’t here.

When you’re not home to help put the kids to bed i feel lonely and overwhelmed and i worry that they don’t get to spend enough time with you.

I really need your help in the evenings with the kids at least a few nights during the week. And if you’re not going to be able to make it home in time to help I’d really appreciate it if you could call and let me know and just talk to me for a few minutes so i don’t feel so alone.

If you were around more in the evenings i know it would mean a lot to the kids and i wouldn’t be so tired and cranky in the evenings when we’re together.

So this softer startup is much more likely to spark a discussion that leads to some sort of solution to our complaint rather than turning into a fight or argument like we could expect if we use the original harsher startup.

And one last example: you never want to do anything fun you just watch TV or stare at your phone all night.

You’re so boring all the time no wonder we don’t have any friends.

If we don’t start doing more stuff together that i enjoy I’m not sure how much longer this relationship can last.

And so again this sort of harsh startup isn’t going to be received well by our partners. And instead they’re probably going to get defensive or fight back flee or freeze.

So we need to soften the startup: we’ve stayed home watching TV every night this week and when I’ve suggested we do something else you’ve said you’re too tired maybe tomorrow.

When we sit around watching TV all night i get bored and i feel sad and lonely.

It’d be really nice for me if we could do something else together a couple of times a week. And then I’d be happy to watch TV with you the other nights.

So softening our startups and bringing things up more gently with our partners is one of the best things we can do to improve communication in our relationships. But it doesn’t guarantee that the conversations will go smoothly and our partners may still get defensive or start a fight or flee the discussion or freeze and not say anything.

Disagreements tend to end with at least as much tension as they begin with. If we bring up the subject of a conflict with angry words, blaming and criticizing our partners, it’s likely the discussion will end in even more anger, blame and criticism. However, if we’re able to soften our startups—the way in which we broach the topic—we can improve communication and have productive discussions with our partners on even the most sensitive subjects.

If we’re feeling too angry and upset to discuss things gently, then it’s better to wait until we’ve calmed down enough to approach the discussion from a less angry and more calm perspective. But once we’re ready to have a conversation, rather than an argument, below are some ways to soften our startups, avoid fighting, and improve communication and promote discussion with our partners.

Four Steps to Improve Communication in Your Relationship

1. Complain, But Don’t Blame

Tell your partner what’s bothering you rather than blaming them. For example, instead of blaming your partner and saying something like:

This place is such a mess. You said you’d clean up but I should have known better to listen to you. You never do any chores around here.

Phrase your complaint like this:

You promised you’d clean the kitchen before you went to bed, but when I woke up this morning the kitchen was just as messy as it was when we finished dinner.

When we bring up difficult topics in terms of a complaint instead of assigning blame, we open the door for a discussion rather than merely provoking a defensive or angry response that leads to a fight.

2. Use “I” Statements

Phrase your complaints in terms of “I” statements instead of “You” statements. In other words, begin your statements with “I” instead of “You.” For example, instead of, “You’re not paying attention to me,” say something like “I would appreciate it if you could pay attention to what I’m saying right now.” Instead of, “You don’t care about me or my feelings,” say something like “I’m feeling neglected.”

You statements are a type of blame, and they are difficult to respond to without becoming defensive, which shuts down any chance to have a discussion. I statements can get across the same message, but in a softer way that invites a conversation.

3. Simply Describe What’s Happening”

When bringing up a complaint, instead of judging or evaluating a situation, just describe what is happening. Judgments use words like “always,” “never,” and “should” such as a statement like, “You never do anything fun with me.” Describing what’s happening involves simply stating of facts of a situation, for example, “I’m staying home by myself tonight while you’re going out with your friends. That’s the third time this week that’s happened.”

Instead of making a judgement like, “Why do I always have to do everything around here?” simply describe the situation in terms such as, “I’ve been cleaning the house for the last half hour while you’ve been watching TV.”

4. Be Clear

When making a complaint, be clear about what’s bothering you. Don’t expect your partner to be able to read your mind. Be as specific as you can about your complaint and what you would like from your partner. Make sure you don’t just talk about what you don’t want them to do, but ask for what it is you want them from them instead.

Just because you know what something means doesn’t mean your partner will understand. If you say something like, “We never spend any time together,” you may know exactly what you mean by that and what you want your partner to do. But it might mean something completely different to them, or they may be confused because they already think you spend time together.

So instead of saying, “We never spend any time together,” be clear and be specific about what you want. Say something like, “I’d really like to go out to dinner with you this weekend and then come home and watch a movie”; or “We used to go for drives in the country and have picnics together. I wish we could still do that once a month or so.”

If you’d like your partner to be more tidy, instead of saying, “You’re such a slob,” be more specific and say, “When you’re done making lunch, I’d appreciate it if you could put your dishes in the dishwasher and wipe down the counter.” Make requests in clear statements that tell your partner what you want and don’t leave them having to guess.

Improved Communication in Action

When you put these four steps together, you learn to begin complaint conversations with softer start-ups. You use statements such as:

I’ve been feeling a little neglected lately. Last week you went out with your friends three nights in a row but we didn’t go out together at all. I would like it if we could spend more time together. Could we pick a time next week to go out for dinner and then see a movie.

This is much softer and inviting startup than something like:

You’re always do things with your friends and never with me. Why don’t you care about us anymore? How come we never do anything together?

The first statement is softer and opens the door for further discussion. The second leaves your partner feeling attacked, defensive, and likely to respond by attacking you back or just shutting down and not wanting to talk at all.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Deescalating Conflicts In Your Relationships

Sometimes discussions start off on the wrong foot. Other times things start to escalate and we start attacking or blaming each other. In order to communicate more effectively, we need to learn how to deescalate these sorts of conflicts. One of the best ways to do this is with what relationship expert John Gottman calls repair attempts.

Repair attempts are attempts to repair any damage we’ve done with something we’ve said during a discussion. Maybe we’ve been a little too harsh, or said something unfair or mean. Or maybe the other person just reacted poorly to something innocent we said that they took the wrong way. No matter why tensions have started to rise, repair attempts can help ease tensions and get things back on track.

Although this video focuses on how to improve communication in a romantic relationship, like with the last post, these same skills can help improve communication with friends, family, co-workers and bosses, and so on.

Deescalate Conflict With Repair Attempts

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

In my previous video on communication in relationships we looked at how to start off conversations with our partners more gently or softly. Softening our start-ups is probably the most important thing we can do to communicate better and make our discussions more likely to lead to a resolution rather than escalating into a fight or argument.

But even if we have good intentions we don’t know if we start things off softly and even if we do start off softly discussions can still escalate into an argument or fight. So in this video we’re going to look at what we can do when we find ourselves trying to talk to our partners and things start escalating and seem to be heading towards a fight or unproductive argument. And how we can de-escalate conflicts so we can try to work things out in a more productive manner.

So a very common dynamic is that when someone brings up a complaint at some point in the discussion one of us gets offended or feels attacked or maybe just takes something the wrong way and then they take things up a notch and respond back a little more harshly. This usually leads the other person to respond back equally harshly or take things up another notch.

And once this sort of escalation starts if we don’t make a conscious effort to relieve this tension things often continue to escalate until we’re left yelling and screaming at each other. Or with one of us in tears. Or with one of us so upset we storm out of the room and slam the door behind us. Or maybe one of us shuts down and goes silent and refuses to talk anymore. Or any number of variations on this theme at which point the discussion isn’t going any further and nothing’s getting resolved and we’re left with anger and hurt feelings and resentment towards each other.

So how do we deal with this? How do we manage to keep discussions from escalating like this, and to de-escalate things once tensions do start to rise?

In my last video on communication i mentioned the psychologist and relationship expert john Guttmann. In his research observing thousands of couples he’s found that once tensions during a discussion start to escalate, couples who communicate well with each other relieve this tension with what he calls repair attempts. In his book the seven principles for making marriage work, which i think is one of the best self-help books about relationships and I’ll link to it in the description, he describes repair attempts like this:

When you take driving lessons the first thing you’re taught is how to stop the car. Putting on the brakes is an important skill in a relationship too. When your discussion starts off on the wrong foot or you find yourself in an endless cycle of recriminations, you can prevent a disaster if you know how to stop. I call these breaks repair attempts.

So a repair attempt is simply a statement that we use to try to ease the tension a bit and de-escalate conflicts. So for example I’m sorry that came out a little harsh what i meant was ….

Or I’m feeling a little defensive right now could you please try to rephrase that?

Or i think I’m starting to understand what you mean.

Or you’re right i was being a little unfair or i think we’re getting a bit off topic.

Each of these statements is like a peace offering we’re making in the middle of the conflict. And if our partners hear this peace offering and accept it, then tensions can start to de-escalate and we can get the discussion back on track. And there are a couple of posts on the Guttmann institute’s blog that have a long list of examples of phrases we can use as repair attempts that I’ll link to in the description, so you can look through these and find a few that sound good and make sense to you that you can use in your discussions with your partner.

And it’s not enough to just make a repair attempt; our partners need to be able to notice and recognize when we’re making repair attempts. And likewise we need to be able to notice and recognize our partner’s repair attempts. Otherwise our repair attempts are just flying over each other’s heads and they don’t accomplish anything and nothing changes.

And if we’re arguing with someone. Sometimes we stop listening to what they’re saying, or at least stop paying that close attention maybe because we’re thinking about what we want to say next. Or maybe we feel like we’ve heard it all before so we’re just waiting for them to stop talking so we can say our piece

And so it can be easy to miss our partners repair attempts. But if they are making repair attempts and trying to ease the tension, we need to be able to pick up on this. So it’s important that we be on the lookout for our partners repair attempts and do our best to recognize them when they do happen.

And if our partners have missed our repair attempt then maybe we need to repeat it or find a way to rephrase it so that it’s more obvious to them and they receive the message that we’re reaching out and trying to ease the tension.

And it’s a good idea to try to phrase repair attempts as i statements because i statements are more likely to be received graciously than a you statement, which often comes off as blaming or attacking even if that’s not the intention. So when we’re able to express things in terms of i instead of you there’s a better chance our repair attempts will be well received. So let’s look at some examples.

Instead of a you statement like, you’re getting off track try to stick to the point, it’s more effective if we can phrase it in terms of an i statement: i feel like we’re getting a little off track, can we try to refocus on what we started off talking about.

Instead of, you seem to be getting really worked up. Can you try to calm down a bit? I feel like things are getting a little worked up. Can we just try to take it down a bit?

And even if we think our partners are the ones being unreasonable, and let’s face it that’s usually the case, we can’t control what they’re doing or what they’re saying. So if we want to de-escalate we need to focus on what we can do to help simmer things down rather than calling them out for not listening, for attacking us, for getting defensive, and so on.

Or playing some sort of game of chicken where we’re not going to start de-escalating until they make a peace offering first. Because even though it’s a natural reaction to want them to have to acknowledge that they’re the ones being unreasonable, they’re the ones at fault, if both of us have that attitude and neither of us are willing to reach out with a repair attempt first, then the argument is going to just keep escalating and nothing’s going to get resolved.

Now ideally when we say something harsh we can catch ourselves right away and make a repair attempt before our partners even had a chance to react to it. Are you just going to sit there and ignore me all night? Sorry i didn’t mean to snap at you. What i meant to say is i had a rough day at work could we just talk about it for a bit.

Now sometimes during a discussion things seem to be going fine and then one of us says something that the other person takes the wrong way and then that just sets them off. And so if we can catch things right away before there’s any further escalation our repair attempts are much more likely to be successful. So for example let’s say we’ve been arguing a lot lately about chores and just how much work around the house each of us are doing and we say something like, thanks for cleaning up after dinner tonight.

And because this has been a sensitive issue lately our partners take it the wrong way and say, you don’t have to be all sarcastic about it. I told you i was going to clean up after dinner. And so now we have a choice and we can respond back to our partners in the same sort of manner they responded to us and continue escalating things: what are you getting so defensive? About i was just thanking you.

Or we can choose to use a repair attempt: oh I’m sorry if that came off as sarcastic. I really meant it i really do appreciate you cleaning up after dinner tonight.

And then because we were able to use a repair attempt as soon as things started to escalate it’s going to be easier for our partners to respond positively to it since the level of tension is still relatively low at this stage and it’s pretty likely that we’re going to be able to prevent things from escalating any further oh okay i guess i took that the wrong way.

Or another example. How was work today?

My boss was being such an idiot.

I wish you two could get along better get along better.

He’s an idiot. Why should i have to get along with him? Why can’t you just take my side for a change?

And then we can feel unfairly attacked and attack back: i was just trying to be supportive there’s no need for you to blow up at me like that.

Or we can try a repair attempt: I’m sorry i was just trying to be supportive. I know that came out the wrong way. What i meant was i wish your boss would stop being such an idiot.

Yeah he’s the worst. I just hate him.

So again, if we’re able to intervene almost immediately with a repair attempt as soon as things start to go off the rails, there’s a good chance we’re going to be able to get things back on track without too much trouble.

So it’s great if we can catch things right away and offer a repair attempt early on before things have a chance to escalate, but that doesn’t always happen. But we can still use repair attempts in the middle of arguments that have been going on for a while and gotten really heated. So let’s look at a couple of examples where we’ve been going at it for a while.

So things have been escalating and they say, stop attacking me. And instead of using a repair attempt we respond, I’m not attacking you. You’re the one attacking me, and you’re just not listening to anything I’m saying. Then things will most likely continue to escalate you’re impossible to talk to when you get like this and then keep escalating from there.

But if when they say, stop attacking me, even if what we’re thinking is, stop attacking them, they’re the ones attacking me, if we’re able to respond with a repair attempt like, I’m sorry i should have phrased that better. I didn’t mean to attack you. Let me try again. We’ve made a sort of peace offering and made it much easier for them to de-escalate as well. Yeah okay i get that now.

Now if they continue to escalate and respond with something like, yeah you always get like this. Why can’t we just have a discussion without you attacking me? So in that case they didn’t respond to our repair attempt. So why might that happen and what can we do about it?

Well if we or our partners are really upset or angry or having any sort of very strong emotional reaction to what’s being discussed it can be hard for a repair attempt to even register. And even if it does register we can’t always disengage ourselves from fight mode or attack mode and take things down a notch. Sometimes our emotional reactions take over and overwhelm our abilities to process information and respond more appropriately.

So anytime we’re feeling so upset angry anxious or overwhelmed that we’re only able to respond to each other emotionally, then we need to take a break until things calm down enough that we’re able to talk things out more rationally. But there are a few challenges with taking a break in the middle of a heated argument, and so in my next video we’re going to look at these challenges and learn some tips on how to take an effective break or timeout in the middle of a heated argument or fight with our partners.

There are a couple of blog posts on the Gottman Institute website with more examples of repair attempts: R is for Repair and Repair is the Secret Weapon of Emotionally Connected Couples. And you can learn more about repair attempts, as well as many other self-help strategies to improve your relationship, in Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Self Help for Couples: Tips to Improve Your Relationship

In this series of self-help posts for couples, we’re going to look at some tips from couples counselling that can help improve our relationships. This section is just getting started, and I’ll be adding new content over the next few months. For now I’ll just be posting my relationship videos as they come out.

  • Improving Communication by Softening Your Startup
  • Deescalating Conflicts With Repair Attempts
  • Communicate Better With Timeouts
  • Deescalate Conflict in Your Relationship With Repair Attempts

    Sometimes discussions with our partners start off on the wrong foot. Other times things start to escalate and we start attacking or blaming each other. In order to communicate more effectively, we need to learn how to deescalate these sorts of conflicts. One of the best ways to do this is with what relationship expert John Gottman calls repair attempts.

    Repair attempts are attempts to repair any damage we’ve done with something we’ve said during a discussion. Maybe we’ve been a little too harsh, or said something unfair or mean. Or maybe our partners have just reacted poorly to something innocent we said that they took the wrong way. No matter why tensions have started to rise, repair attempts can help ease tensions and get things back on track.

    Deescalate Conflict With Repair Attempts

    This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

    In my previous video on communication in relationships we looked at how to start off conversations with our partners more gently or softly. Softening our start-ups is probably the most important thing we can do to communicate better and make our discussions more likely to lead to a resolution rather than escalating into a fight or argument.

    But even if we have good intentions we don’t know if we start things off softly and even if we do start off softly discussions can still escalate into an argument or fight. So in this video we’re going to look at what we can do when we find ourselves trying to talk to our partners and things start escalating and seem to be heading towards a fight or unproductive argument. And how we can de-escalate conflicts so we can try to work things out in a more productive manner.

    So a very common dynamic is that when someone brings up a complaint at some point in the discussion one of us gets offended or feels attacked or maybe just takes something the wrong way and then they take things up a notch and respond back a little more harshly. This usually leads the other person to respond back equally harshly or take things up another notch.

    And once this sort of escalation starts if we don’t make a conscious effort to relieve this tension things often continue to escalate until we’re left yelling and screaming at each other. Or with one of us in tears. Or with one of us so upset we storm out of the room and slam the door behind us. Or maybe one of us shuts down and goes silent and refuses to talk anymore. Or any number of variations on this theme at which point the discussion isn’t going any further and nothing’s getting resolved and we’re left with anger and hurt feelings and resentment towards each other.

    So how do we deal with this? How do we manage to keep discussions from escalating like this, and to de-escalate things once tensions do start to rise?

    In my last video on communication i mentioned the psychologist and relationship expert john Guttmann. In his research observing thousands of couples he’s found that once tensions during a discussion start to escalate, couples who communicate well with each other relieve this tension with what he calls repair attempts. In his book the seven principles for making marriage work, which i think is one of the best self-help books about relationships and I’ll link to it in the description, he describes repair attempts like this:

    When you take driving lessons the first thing you’re taught is how to stop the car. Putting on the brakes is an important skill in a relationship too. When your discussion starts off on the wrong foot or you find yourself in an endless cycle of recriminations, you can prevent a disaster if you know how to stop. I call these breaks repair attempts.

    So a repair attempt is simply a statement that we use to try to ease the tension a bit and de-escalate conflicts. So for example I’m sorry that came out a little harsh what i meant was ….

    Or I’m feeling a little defensive right now could you please try to rephrase that?

    Or i think I’m starting to understand what you mean.

    Or you’re right i was being a little unfair or i think we’re getting a bit off topic.

    Each of these statements is like a peace offering we’re making in the middle of the conflict. And if our partners hear this peace offering and accept it, then tensions can start to de-escalate and we can get the discussion back on track. And there are a couple of posts on the Guttmann institute’s blog that have a long list of examples of phrases we can use as repair attempts that I’ll link to in the description, so you can look through these and find a few that sound good and make sense to you that you can use in your discussions with your partner.

    And it’s not enough to just make a repair attempt; our partners need to be able to notice and recognize when we’re making repair attempts. And likewise we need to be able to notice and recognize our partner’s repair attempts. Otherwise our repair attempts are just flying over each other’s heads and they don’t accomplish anything and nothing changes.

    And if we’re arguing with someone. Sometimes we stop listening to what they’re saying, or at least stop paying that close attention maybe because we’re thinking about what we want to say next. Or maybe we feel like we’ve heard it all before so we’re just waiting for them to stop talking so we can say our piece

    And so it can be easy to miss our partners repair attempts. But if they are making repair attempts and trying to ease the tension, we need to be able to pick up on this. So it’s important that we be on the lookout for our partners repair attempts and do our best to recognize them when they do happen.

    And if our partners have missed our repair attempt then maybe we need to repeat it or find a way to rephrase it so that it’s more obvious to them and they receive the message that we’re reaching out and trying to ease the tension.

    And it’s a good idea to try to phrase repair attempts as i statements because i statements are more likely to be received graciously than a you statement, which often comes off as blaming or attacking even if that’s not the intention. So when we’re able to express things in terms of i instead of you there’s a better chance our repair attempts will be well received. So let’s look at some examples.

    Instead of a you statement like, you’re getting off track try to stick to the point, it’s more effective if we can phrase it in terms of an i statement: i feel like we’re getting a little off track, can we try to refocus on what we started off talking about.

    Instead of, you seem to be getting really worked up. Can you try to calm down a bit? I feel like things are getting a little worked up. Can we just try to take it down a bit?

    And even if we think our partners are the ones being unreasonable, and let’s face it that’s usually the case, we can’t control what they’re doing or what they’re saying. So if we want to de-escalate we need to focus on what we can do to help simmer things down rather than calling them out for not listening, for attacking us, for getting defensive, and so on.

    Or playing some sort of game of chicken where we’re not going to start de-escalating until they make a peace offering first. Because even though it’s a natural reaction to want them to have to acknowledge that they’re the ones being unreasonable, they’re the ones at fault, if both of us have that attitude and neither of us are willing to reach out with a repair attempt first, then the argument is going to just keep escalating and nothing’s going to get resolved.

    Now ideally when we say something harsh we can catch ourselves right away and make a repair attempt before our partners even had a chance to react to it. Are you just going to sit there and ignore me all night? Sorry i didn’t mean to snap at you. What i meant to say is i had a rough day at work could we just talk about it for a bit.

    Now sometimes during a discussion things seem to be going fine and then one of us says something that the other person takes the wrong way and then that just sets them off. And so if we can catch things right away before there’s any further escalation our repair attempts are much more likely to be successful. So for example let’s say we’ve been arguing a lot lately about chores and just how much work around the house each of us are doing and we say something like, thanks for cleaning up after dinner tonight.

    And because this has been a sensitive issue lately our partners take it the wrong way and say, you don’t have to be all sarcastic about it. I told you i was going to clean up after dinner. And so now we have a choice and we can respond back to our partners in the same sort of manner they responded to us and continue escalating things: what are you getting so defensive? About i was just thanking you.

    Or we can choose to use a repair attempt: oh I’m sorry if that came off as sarcastic. I really meant it i really do appreciate you cleaning up after dinner tonight.

    And then because we were able to use a repair attempt as soon as things started to escalate it’s going to be easier for our partners to respond positively to it since the level of tension is still relatively low at this stage and it’s pretty likely that we’re going to be able to prevent things from escalating any further oh okay i guess i took that the wrong way.

    Or another example. How was work today?

    My boss was being such an idiot.

    I wish you two could get along better get along better.

    He’s an idiot. Why should i have to get along with him? Why can’t you just take my side for a change?

    And then we can feel unfairly attacked and attack back: i was just trying to be supportive there’s no need for you to blow up at me like that.

    Or we can try a repair attempt: I’m sorry i was just trying to be supportive. I know that came out the wrong way. What i meant was i wish your boss would stop being such an idiot.

    Yeah he’s the worst. I just hate him.

    So again, if we’re able to intervene almost immediately with a repair attempt as soon as things start to go off the rails, there’s a good chance we’re going to be able to get things back on track without too much trouble.

    So it’s great if we can catch things right away and offer a repair attempt early on before things have a chance to escalate, but that doesn’t always happen. But we can still use repair attempts in the middle of arguments that have been going on for a while and gotten really heated. So let’s look at a couple of examples where we’ve been going at it for a while.

    So things have been escalating and they say, stop attacking me. And instead of using a repair attempt we respond, I’m not attacking you. You’re the one attacking me, and you’re just not listening to anything I’m saying. Then things will most likely continue to escalate you’re impossible to talk to when you get like this and then keep escalating from there.

    But if when they say, stop attacking me, even if what we’re thinking is, stop attacking them, they’re the ones attacking me, if we’re able to respond with a repair attempt like, I’m sorry i should have phrased that better. I didn’t mean to attack you. Let me try again. We’ve made a sort of peace offering and made it much easier for them to de-escalate as well. Yeah okay i get that now.

    Now if they continue to escalate and respond with something like, yeah you always get like this. Why can’t we just have a discussion without you attacking me? So in that case they didn’t respond to our repair attempt. So why might that happen and what can we do about it?

    Well if we or our partners are really upset or angry or having any sort of very strong emotional reaction to what’s being discussed it can be hard for a repair attempt to even register. And even if it does register we can’t always disengage ourselves from fight mode or attack mode and take things down a notch. Sometimes our emotional reactions take over and overwhelm our abilities to process information and respond more appropriately.

    So anytime we’re feeling so upset angry anxious or overwhelmed that we’re only able to respond to each other emotionally, then we need to take a break until things calm down enough that we’re able to talk things out more rationally. But there are a few challenges with taking a break in the middle of a heated argument, and so in my next video we’re going to look at these challenges and learn some tips on how to take an effective break or timeout in the middle of a heated argument or fight with our partners.

    There are a couple of blog posts on the Gottman Institute website with more examples of repair attempts: R is for Repair and Repair is the Secret Weapon of Emotionally Connected Couples. And you can learn more about repair attempts, as well as many other self-help strategies to improve your relationship, in Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

    If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

    Improve Communication in Your Relationship by Softening Your Startup

    Regardless of how strong are relationships are, there will always be times when we have a complaint that we need to talk about. So it’s important that we’re able to have these discussions without sparking a conflict, or having things escalate into a fight or argument. The best best way to do this is to learn how to soften our startups.

    The term softening your startup was coined by relationship expert John Gottman. And you can learn more about softening your startup, as well as many other self-help strategies to improve your relationship, in Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

    Improve Communication by Softening Your Startup

    This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

    One of the most common reasons people come for couples counseling is to work on communication issues. Now communication issues can refer to all sorts of different things. And there can be lots of different reasons why these communication issues are arising. But regardless of the types of communication problems you’re experiencing, if you and your partner aren’t able to communicate with each other about how you’re feeling or about issues that arise in your relationship, it is going to be almost impossible for that relationship to work.

    So the first and maybe most important step in improving communication is to learn how to bring up difficult topics of conversation with our partners in ways that help lead to a resolution rather than to a fight or argument or any sort of escalation. And the key to bringing things up with our partners effectively is to make sure that we’re starting things off in a gentle manner rather than harshly.

    Jon Gottman calls this softening your startup. He’s one of the most influential psychologists in the field of relationships. And in his research observing thousands of couples he’s found that discussions between couples generally end with at least as much tension as they began with. So if we begin our discussions by criticizing our partners or attacking them or coming at them from a place of anger, these discussions are probably not going to lead to a nice resolution. And it’s much more likely that they end with us still criticizing each other attacking one another and being angry at each other.

    So instead of bringing things up harshly we need to soften our startups, and find ways to bring things up that invite discussion and resolution rather than provoking a conflict. Now when we do bring things up harshly the other person tends to respond in one of four ways:

    They get defensive and start making excuses.

    Or they fight and respond back harshly.

    Or instead they opt for flight and just leave because they don’t want to continue being attacked, or they don’t want to talk about this now.

    Or they freeze, either because they don’t know how to respond, or because they’re hit with a strong emotional reaction that’s overwhelming and prevents them from being able to think clearly and figure out what they want to say. And I’ll have a video coming out soon that looks at what we can do in these situations so please subscribe so you don’t miss it and I’ll put a link in the description once it comes out

    So the key to a soft startup is to be able to express how we’re feeling and whatever’s on our minds without provoking one of these types of reactions from our partners. And one of the best ways to do this is to make sure that we’re communicating assertively, rather than aggressively or passive aggressively or passively, which might be the softest way of starting things up, but passive communication usually doesn’t lead to much communication at all, and we don’t get to say it was actually on our minds.

    And a good way to think about assertive communication is with the acronym dear which describes the main communication skill in dialectical behavior therapy that i talk about in more detail in another video. Now dear stands for describe, express, assert, and reinforce.

    So we start by describing the situation we want to talk about in as neutral and objective terms as possible. We want to stick to the facts without providing any interpretations or commentaries about the facts. The goal is simply to let the other person know what we’re talking about in a neutral manner that doesn’t provoke any emotional or defensive reactions from our partners.

    So a harsh way of describing a situation who would be something like, you never help with anything around here, you’re an absolute slob, i don’t know how you can live like this. So if we start off harshly like that it’s going to be really hard for our partners to respond without getting defensive we’re getting upset and escalating things.

    So instead we want to describe things more softly just sticking to the facts. I had to clean up by myself after dinner tonight. I had to go into the living room to get your dirty dishes from lunch. The distinction between describing the situation softly and describing it more harshly is that here, while we’re still complaining about the situation, we’re trying to do it in a way that isn’t explicitly criticizing our partners, such as i had to clean up by myself after dinner because you’re so lazy or because you’re such a slob. Because anything that comes off as criticism rather than simply as a complaint is almost always going to be met with defensiveness or with some sort of escalation as they criticize us back.

    And then after we describe the situation, we express how we’re feeling about the situation. It’s important that we don’t assume they know how we feel, so we tell them directly. And we do it using i messages. So with i messages we simply use the word i to express how we’re feeling, often prefaced with a statement like, when this happens or when you do that, i feel like this.

    So when I’m left doing the dishes by myself i feel neglected and angry.

    Or when you don’t help clean up after dinner i feel alone and sad.

    When we use i messages since we’re speaking about our own experiences and our own feelings, it can be easier for other people to hear without reacting negatively or getting defensive. Because we’re not criticizing them, we’re just expressing how we feel. And compare this to a harsher way of expressing how we feel about the situation like, i spend half my life doing housework, it’s like you think I’m your maid, which is not going to be received well and is more likely to spark a conflict than to lead to a resolution.

    And then we assert what we’d like to see happen again using i messages. So instead of something harsh like you better start doing your share and stop expecting me to pick up after you all the time, I’m not your mother, we assert what we’d like more softly. It would be nice if you would help more around the house. I’d really appreciate that.

    And finally we reinforce the changes we’d like to see. And in psychology reinforcement refers to rewarding desirable behavior. So in a harsh startup instead of reinforcing behavior we’d like to see with a reward we might threaten a punishment. You better start helping out more with the housework or we’ll see how you like it if i stop doing any work around here.

    Whereas a softer startup could be something like, I’d really appreciate it if you’d help with the dishes, and then I’d spend less time cleaning after dinner and we could spend more time together in the evenings.

    It would be nice if you would help more around the house, and then i wouldn’t be so tired and cranky all the time.

    So a soft startup doesn’t necessarily mean our partners are going to like what we have to say or even agree with it. But it makes it much less likely that they react defensively or feel like they’re being criticized or blamed or attacked and have to attack us back.

    Now one thing that can make softening our startups difficult is that we often bring things up with our partners when we’re upset about something. And when we’re upset it can be hard to start things off softly. Or we may even think we’re starting things off softly, but when we’re feeling really emotional our compasses for what comes off as gentle and what comes off as harsh can be a little bit off. And maybe we’re being really gentle compared to how we’re feeling inside yet are still coming across as harsh.

    Or maybe our partners are just really sensitive and defensive, which often happens if we’ve been arguing a lot lately. So even though we are starting off relatively softly our partners perceive it as too harsh and things start to escalate almost immediately.

    And so if we are really upset or annoyed or angry and want to bring something up with our partners, it’s important to take some time to make sure we’re feeling a little bit calmer first, and do whatever we need to do to manage our strong emotions before starting the discussion. Because the calmer we’re feeling, the more naturally a softer startup will come, which makes it easier for our partners to respond without escalating, and makes it more likely our discussion is going to be productive.

    But why do we have to be the ones who go out of our ways to soften things up even when we think our partners are the ones to blame? Well it comes down to whether we want to resolve the situation or just make sure our partners know how upset we are with them. And if that’s our goal then we can blurt out whatever we want. But if we’re hoping to resolve the situation then the more we’re able to soften our startups the more likely it is we’re going to be able to work things out.

    And before bringing up a sensitive issue it’s helpful if we can set the stage for the discussion signal to our partners that there’s something we want to talk to them about instead of just hitting them with it out of nowhere. This could be some expression similar to, we need to talk, but that’s often associated with a breakup talk, so we want something without that connotation, some code we have with our partners that means hey there’s some stuff I’d like to talk about with you.

    So we could just say that, or can we talk about something, or even I’d like to have a conversation with you about something that’s been on my mind. And then we can ask if they’re okay talking about it now, or if we should plan something for later when we both have time and won’t be distracted. Maybe just after dinner but not too late when we’re both feeling tired and thinking about bed. And certainly not once we’re already in bed and at least one of us is trying to fall asleep.

    So let’s look at a couple more examples. Nice to see you made it home in time to help put the kids to bed. Oh wait they went about an hour ago.

    You don’t care about your kids. You don’t care about me. All you care about is your job. I might as well be a single parent.

    You’d better start coming home in time to help put the kids to bed or me and the kids are gonna go stay with my parents for a while. I just can’t do this by myself anymore.

    So this type of opening is obviously harsh. It’s not neutral. It doesn’t just describe the facts. We’re criticizing and being sarcastic and it’s not going to be well received. No one’s going to react well to this type of opening.

    So a softer startup would be something like: you promised to start leaving work in time to help put the kids to bed they went about an hour ago and you weren’t here.

    When you’re not home to help put the kids to bed i feel lonely and overwhelmed and i worry that they don’t get to spend enough time with you.

    I really need your help in the evenings with the kids at least a few nights during the week. And if you’re not going to be able to make it home in time to help I’d really appreciate it if you could call and let me know and just talk to me for a few minutes so i don’t feel so alone.

    If you were around more in the evenings i know it would mean a lot to the kids and i wouldn’t be so tired and cranky in the evenings when we’re together.

    So this softer startup is much more likely to spark a discussion that leads to some sort of solution to our complaint rather than turning into a fight or argument like we could expect if we use the original harsher startup.

    And one last example: you never want to do anything fun you just watch TV or stare at your phone all night.

    You’re so boring all the time no wonder we don’t have any friends.

    If we don’t start doing more stuff together that i enjoy I’m not sure how much longer this relationship can last.

    And so again this sort of harsh startup isn’t going to be received well by our partners. And instead they’re probably going to get defensive or fight back flee or freeze.

    So we need to soften the startup: we’ve stayed home watching TV every night this week and when I’ve suggested we do something else you’ve said you’re too tired maybe tomorrow.

    When we sit around watching TV all night i get bored and i feel sad and lonely.

    It’d be really nice for me if we could do something else together a couple of times a week. And then I’d be happy to watch TV with you the other nights.

    So softening our startups and bringing things up more gently with our partners is one of the best things we can do to improve communication in our relationships. But it doesn’t guarantee that the conversations will go smoothly and our partners may still get defensive or start a fight or flee the discussion or freeze and not say anything.

    Disagreements tend to end with at least as much tension as they begin with. If we bring up the subject of a conflict with angry words, blaming and criticizing our partners, it’s likely the discussion will end in even more anger, blame and criticism. However, if we’re able to soften our startups—the way in which we broach the topic—we can improve communication and have productive discussions with our partners on even the most sensitive subjects.

    If we’re feeling too angry and upset to discuss things gently, then it’s better to wait until we’ve calmed down enough to approach the discussion from a less angry and more calm perspective. But once we’re ready to have a conversation, rather than an argument, below are some ways to soften our startups, avoid fighting, and improve communication and promote discussion with our partners.

    Four Steps to Improve Communication in Your Relationship

    1. Complain, But Don’t Blame

    Tell your partner what’s bothering you rather than blaming them. For example, instead of blaming your partner and saying something like:

    This place is such a mess. You said you’d clean up but I should have known better to listen to you. You never do any chores around here.

    Phrase your complaint like this:

    You promised you’d clean the kitchen before you went to bed, but when I woke up this morning the kitchen was just as messy as it was when we finished dinner.

    When we bring up difficult topics in terms of a complaint instead of assigning blame, we open the door for a discussion rather than merely provoking a defensive or angry response that leads to a fight.

    2. Use “I” Statements

    Phrase your complaints in terms of “I” statements instead of “You” statements. In other words, begin your statements with “I” instead of “You.” For example, instead of, “You’re not paying attention to me,” say something like “I would appreciate it if you could pay attention to what I’m saying right now.” Instead of, “You don’t care about me or my feelings,” say something like “I’m feeling neglected.”

    You statements are a type of blame, and they are difficult to respond to without becoming defensive, which shuts down any chance to have a discussion. I statements can get across the same message, but in a softer way that invites a conversation.

    3. Simply Describe What’s Happening”

    When bringing up a complaint, instead of judging or evaluating a situation, just describe what is happening. Judgments use words like “always,” “never,” and “should” such as a statement like, “You never do anything fun with me.” Describing what’s happening involves simply stating of facts of a situation, for example, “I’m staying home by myself tonight while you’re going out with your friends. That’s the third time this week that’s happened.”

    Instead of making a judgement like, “Why do I always have to do everything around here?” simply describe the situation in terms such as, “I’ve been cleaning the house for the last half hour while you’ve been watching TV.”

    4. Be Clear

    When making a complaint, be clear about what’s bothering you. Don’t expect your partner to be able to read your mind. Be as specific as you can about your complaint and what you would like from your partner. Make sure you don’t just talk about what you don’t want them to do, but ask for what it is you want them from them instead.

    Just because you know what something means doesn’t mean your partner will understand. If you say something like, “We never spend any time together,” you may know exactly what you mean by that and what you want your partner to do. But it might mean something completely different to them, or they may be confused because they already think you spend time together.

    So instead of saying, “We never spend any time together,” be clear and be specific about what you want. Say something like, “I’d really like to go out to dinner with you this weekend and then come home and watch a movie”; or “We used to go for drives in the country and have picnics together. I wish we could still do that once a month or so.”

    If you’d like your partner to be more tidy, instead of saying, “You’re such a slob,” be more specific and say, “When you’re done making lunch, I’d appreciate it if you could put your dishes in the dishwasher and wipe down the counter.” Make requests in clear statements that tell your partner what you want and don’t leave them having to guess.

    Improved Communication in Action

    When you put these four steps together, you learn to begin complaint conversations with softer start-ups. You use statements such as:

    I’ve been feeling a little neglected lately. Last week you went out with your friends three nights in a row but we didn’t go out together at all. I would like it if we could spend more time together. Could we pick a time next week to go out for dinner and then see a movie.

    This is much softer and inviting startup than something like:

    You’re always do things with your friends and never with me. Why don’t you care about us anymore? How come we never do anything together?

    The first statement is softer and opens the door for further discussion. The second leaves your partner feeling attacked, defensive, and likely to respond by attacking you back or just shutting down and not wanting to talk at all.

    If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

    Learn How to Meditate

    Mindfulness Meditation

    Maybe you’ve tried meditating in the past, but have quickly given up. You decided you’re no good at meditation, or that meditating is too hard. Or maybe you quit meditating because you think your brain just doesn’t work that way and you’re not able to meditate.

    But meditation is much simpler than you might think. There’s no need to make your mind go blank and try not to have any thoughts. It’s perfectly fine to have thoughts while meditating, we all do. And we all get distracted while meditating. And when we meditate our minds wander, often constantly.

    DBT mindfulness skills

    When we meditate we simply notice when we’re having thoughts, and try not to allow these thoughts to carry our minds away. And we try to become aware whenever we’ve gotten distracted, and then refocus our attention back into the present.

    The video below outlines five simple steps anyone can do to learn how to meditate. The videos that follow offer some more tips on how to meditate. And these are followed by some simple guided mindfulness meditations that you can use to help you meditate. And if you’d like to learn how to meditate in more detail, please check out my complete mindfulness meditation course. The first four lessons are free!

    Learn How to Meditate

    If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

    How To Meditate Course Contents

    Below is a list of the posts in this meditation course. These links also appear in the sidebar of each post, or below the posts on mobile devices.  

    Guided Walking and Breathing Meditation

    Sometimes sitting meditation can be difficult. We get distracted, bored, uncomfortable or just find it hard to sit still. And if that’s the case, we can try walking meditation. The meditation below helps us practice mindfulness as we walk. We combine paying attention to our breath and paying attention to our footsteps.

    The first video teaches how to do this meditation and contains a short, guided version. Then there’s a longer guided version in the second video. And we can also do this meditation without using guided instructions.

    Guided Walking and Breathing Meditation Instructions

    Extended Guided Walking and Breathing Meditation

    If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

    How To Make A Decision

    Decisions can be hard to make. And while it’s understandable that we’d have trouble making important decisions that are going to have a big impact on our lives, sometimes even the smallest decisions can be agonizing. And when we’re feeling anxious or depressed, it can seem impossible to make any sort of decision.

    In this video we examine:

    • Different types of decisions, from day-to-day decisions to potentially life-altering decisions
    • Why some decisions are so difficult to make
    • Different decision-making strategies
    • Why some decision-making processes tend to lead to better decisions than others

    Now just because we don’t like the results of a decision doesn’t mean we made a bad decision, or that we’re not good at making decisions. And so we explore how it’s possible to make a good decision, yet not get the results we want.

    And then we learn a decision-making strategy that involves:

    • Assessing the pros and cons of our various options
    • Listening to our guts and intuition
    • Making a decision that’s in line with our goals and values

    How to Make a Decision

    This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

    How to make a decision. In this video we’re going to look at why some decisions are so hard and what we can do if we’re having trouble coming up with a decision. And we’re going to learn a decision-making process that can help us make decisions that we can be comfortable with and confident in.

    Often it’s difficult to come to a decision because of the stakes involved: the higher the stakes the more careful we tend to be when making a decision. But even seemingly insignificant low stakes day-to-day decisions like what to wear or what to eat can sometimes seem overwhelming.

    Sometimes decisions are hard because we feel like we don’t have enough information to make an informed decision other times we have too much information and just don’t know how to make sense of it all. Or there can be too many options to choose from. Or we can’t find any options that we’re happy with or that meet our criteria.

    And sometimes when we’re struggling with a decision it’s not the actual decision that’s so challenging; our indecisiveness is a symptom of something else: like decision overload where we’re overwhelmed by the number of decisions we need to make and we just can’t deal with another one.

    Or we’re afraid our decision is going to disappoint someone so we keep trying to put it off.

    Or we avoid making a decision because we don’t know how to act on it.

    Or don’t want to have to act on.

    Or our difficulty making a decision could be related to anxiety about something connected with the decision for example we’re getting ready to travel and having trouble deciding what to pack being really anxious about it. But it’s not really the decision about what the pack that’s causing our anxiety we’re anxious about traveling and we don’t have much control over the aspects of traveling that are actually causing our anxiety so we redirect our anxiety onto our packing because that’s something we have control over. But unfortunately there is no perfect way to pack that’s going to make our travel anxiety disappear.

    And making decisions can often be really hard if we’re depressed for many of the reasons above so do you recognize yourself in any of these.

    Now let’s look at some of the ways we make decisions and see if any of these sound familiar a pros and cons list which could be an actual written list or it could just be a process we go through in our heads.

    Or we go with our guts or intuition and choose whatever feels right.

    Or we make decisions based on our values and goals.

    Or we make impulsive or emotional decisions and choose whatever offers the most instant gratification or makes us feel better right away i can’t deal with all of this stress i quit.

    Or we hate making decisions so much and just want to avoid them that we go with the first option that’s at all tolerable just to get the decision over and done with so we don’t have to think about it anymore whatever this is fine.

    Or we can spend a long time agonizing over decisions continuing to mull things over and unable to come to a decision even though we’ve looked at it from every angle multiple times and already spent more time on the decision than is warranted based on the importance of the decision.

    Or we make a decision and keep changing our minds second guessing ourselves and going back and forth between different choices.

    Or make a decision and keep asking others for reassurance that we’ve made the right choice should i wear my navy suit are you sure that one’s okay.

    Or maybe we ask someone else to decide for us can you please just tell me which one to wear.

    So in most cases making a good decision is going to involve coming up with a list of options going through the pros and cons of each while listening to our guts and intuition and then making a decision based on our goals and values.

    So let’s say we’ve been offered a new job and we’re trying to decide whether to take the new job or stay at our current jobs so first we take some time to think about all the various options we have and write them down and then we just go through these options and see which are worth further consideration. And let’s say we’ve narrowed it down to just two candidates worth considering.

    And so now we make a pros and cons list for each. So we start with our first option and we come up with a list of pros of staying at the current job and cons of staying at the current job and then also pros of not saying at the current job, and cons of not staying at the current job.

    And then we look at the second option and consider the pros of taking the new job and the cons of taking the new job, as well as the pros of not taking the new job and the cons of not taking the new job.

    So now we look over our pros and cons list with the intention of selecting the option that scores highest. But often our pros and cons lists don’t point to a clear winner there are pros and cons to each option that are relatively equal and seem to balance each other out so what do we do now.

    Well we can go back to our list of options and see if there’s another option we overlooked that didn’t make our original list. But assuming there’s nothing we left out and there is no better option that we’ve overlooked then what often happens is we keep going through the pros and cons hoping we’ve missed something and that if we keep thinking about it long enough eventually the right decision will become clear. But this usually just leads to us thinking in circles we’re changing our minds back and forth and back and forth again and in the end still never getting any closer to making a decision.

    So then the next step is to try listening to our guts and intuition and see if they’re telling us anything. So what does this mean? Well sometimes we just get a feeling about something and so if our intuition is pointing us in a certain direction then we can factor that into our decisions. So maybe when we went for the interview we just had a bad feeling about the new place our intuition was telling us something was off so maybe that points us towards staying at our current jobs.

    Or maybe our guts are telling us no matter how long we stay at our current jobs things just aren’t going to get any better and so that helps tip the scale towards accepting the new job.

    And then before making the decision we want to consider our goals and values. So maybe our goal right now is to advance our careers as much as possible and one of our values is we’re not going to let fear rule our lives. So we single out the things on our pros and cons list related to these goals and values and maybe assign them a little more weight.

    Or maybe one of our goals is wanting to work less and spend more time with our families and one of our values is we don’t want to decide things just based on money. And so we single out the pros and cons related to these and so considering our goals and values can bring some clarity to our pros and cons lists and can help us make a decision.

    But let’s say we’ve done all this and we’re still no closer to being comfortable making a decision now what do we do? So at this point first we need to realize that we’ve been using a solid decision-making process and we’ve spent enough time on this decision that whatever we choose is going to be a reasonable decision and we’re making a good choice. But still how do we actually make that decision?

    Well sometimes we can try on a decision for a while. So maybe we’re leaning towards taking the new job but still not ready to commit and so we decide to try acting as if we’ve taken the new job for a while and just see what that feels like. We visualize ourselves in our new jobs tell our friends we’re pretty sure we’re going to take the new job and just talk it through a bit with other people and just see how it feels living in that decision for a while and if it feels comfortable that can help us feel more comfortable committing to that decision.

    And we can look back at our goals and values and maybe we decided you know i promised myself not to let anxiety rule my life. But there’s nothing so compelling about this new job that means I’m letting myself down if i don’t take it it’s okay to stay where i am for now while i try to find a better opportunity.

    Or related to our goals and values we can ask ourselves if i choose this option will i be able to accept the results of my decision even if they’re not what i wanted? And maybe we think at least i know what my current job is like and if i stay here and things don’t get any better it’s not great but it’s tolerable and if i have to stay here for a while longer i know i can manage that but my new job could be a lot worse and i don’t know if I’d be able to deal with that. So I’m going to go with the option that has the least possible downside or the highest floor and I’m going to stay at my current job because worst case scenario i know I’ll still be okay working there for a while.

    Or we could choose the option that has the highest ceiling or best possible outcome. I know what my current job is like and i know it’s never going to get much better than this but this new job could be so much better. And so we use that as the basis of our decision and if we still can’t decide we need to understand that if we’re unable to make a decision then by default we’re actually deciding that things are going to stay as they are the job is going to get offered to someone else before we decide whether or not to take it. So in the end one way or another a decision is going to be made.

    And sometimes it seems more comfortable to allow that decision to be made for us as a result of our inaction because then if things don’t work out the way we wanted we don’t feel as responsible for the results since technically we didn’t choose that option. But the flip side to this is that then we can start to feel like we don’t have much control over our lives.

    So what if we still can’t decide well when we get this stuck? Often one of the issues is that before we’re willing to commit to a decision we’re looking for some sort of certainty about what the results of the decision will be—which makes sense because it’s going to be the results of our decisions that ultimately impact our lives. But often decisions involve situations that are inherently uncertain. There’s just no way to know in advance if we’d like the new job any better than our current jobs and so the amount of certainty we’re seeking before we feel comfortable making a decision is never going to be possible.

    And so here the issue isn’t with our decision making but with our difficulties accepting uncertainty. And managing the stress and anxiety and worry associated with that uncertainty and we’ll look at some ways to help us manage these challenges in a minute. But first let’s talk about uncertainty regarding the results of our decisions so in a moment I’m going to flip a coin and you need to decide whether you want to choose heads or tails and if you need a moment to think over your decision you can pause the video.

    And here we go.

    So did you make the right decision? Well if you chose tails you got the result that you wanted but does that mean if you decided to pick heads you made a bad choice? Well no because in this example either option was a perfectly reasonable choice because each outcome was equally likely and you had absolutely no reason to choose one option over the other. And so based on the information available there was no way to know to choose tails and so choosing tails wasn’t a better decision than choosing heads, it just led to a better result but you had absolutely no control over what that result was going to be when you made your decision.

    And did you spend much time making your decision to choose heads or tails? Hopefully not because there was nothing to be gained by spending any time on that decision because unless you can see into the future there was no information available that would have been relevant to your decision one way or another.

    Now not all of our decisions are coin flips but a lot of the time when we’re having trouble coming up with the decision it’s because the various alternatives are so close that they might as well be coin flips. And no matter how long we spend researching our decisions there’s usually going to be an element of chance influencing the results that we’re not going to be able to eliminate. So in most cases there’s no way to know what the right decision, if we’re judging based on results, is going to be.

    So in order to come up with good decisions we need to focus on using a good decision-making process like the one we’ve been learning rather than trying to get certainty about what the results of our decisions will be, because to at least some extent the results of our decisions are going to be beyond our control and all we really have control over is the process we use to make our decisions.

    And now instead of flipping a coin I’m going to roll a die and you have to decide whether you think I’m going to roll a 2 or below or 3 or above and you can pause the video if you need time to make your decision I’m going to roll the die in three two one.

    So did you make the right decision? Well if you picked two or below you got a good result but you made the wrong decision. Because there’s six numbers on the die I’m gonna roll a three or above four out of six times. So two thirds of the time it’s going to be 3 or above. So in this case using a good decision making process—the laws of math and probability—the correct decision is clear. We should always pick 3 or above. But the thing is a third of the time I’m gonna roll a two or below and you’re gonna get a bad result even if you made the right decision.

    So the point here is that we can make what’s clearly the right decision and it still leads to a bad result. And we can make what’s clearly the wrong decision yet have it lead to a favorable result. And so this is why we need to focus on the process of making the decision rather than worrying about having certainty about what the eventual results of our decisions are going to be, because it’s the process that we have control over, and there’s always going to be some uncertainty surrounding the results.

    And one last thing about results is that in most cases even if we’re not happy with the result of the decision we made we’ll rarely know what the results would have been if we’d made the other decision. So if we take this job, for example, and we don’t like it, that doesn’t necessarily mean we got the worst result, because if we’d stayed in our current jobs maybe things would have ended up just as bad or even worse.

    And so if we start second-guessing our decisions based on the results and telling ourselves things like i knew i should have gone with the other decision, if only I’d gone with that things would be so much better now, how could I’ve been so stupid, I’m ruining my life, we usually have no way of knowing if this is actually true or not and are just making ourselves feel bad for no reason.

    Okay but we still haven’t decided whether or not to take the job. What do we do now? Well at this point it doesn’t really matter what we choose. We’re not going to find any more information that’s going to make our decision any clearer. So we just need to pick something.

    And then once we’ve made our decision the final step is that if we’re still feeling anxious about the decision and finding the uncertainty difficult to tolerate we need to focus on managing our anxiety and accepting the uncertainty, rather than second guessing our decisions and going through the whole decision-making process over and over and over again hoping we’ll find a decision that eliminates all anxiety and all uncertainty because that’s never going to happen.

    So how do we do this how do we manage our anxiety and learn to accept uncertainty? Well i have a number of videos with strategies that can help that I’ll link to in the description. And we can also use our less significant decisions when there’s not so much at stake to practice managing our anxiety around decisions and uncertainty.

    And as we become more comfortable making these smaller decisions and managing the anxiety and uncertainty around them they start to cause us less anxiety. And we’re building skills that transfer over into our bigger more important decisions where we’re feeling even more anxiety and more discomfort with the uncertainty about the results of these decisions. But this anxiety and uncertainty is somewhat more manageable now as a result of the practice and experience we’ve gained through our smaller decisions.

    So some decisions are always going to be difficult but as long as we have a good decision-making process in place, and understand that there’s almost always going to be at least some uncertainty surrounding the results of our decisions, and have some practice from our smaller decisions managing the anxiety around decisions ,then we’ve prepared ourselves to be able to make any types of decisions that might arise, even though we may still experience some anxiety making the decisions and accepting the uncertainty surrounding the coming videos when they come out

    This decision-making process doesn’t guarantee that we’ll always be happy with the results of our decisions. Sometimes the results are beyond our control. But this decision-making process is an effective way to make decisions that we can be comfortable with, and confident in, knowing we’ve done everything possible in order to make the best decision with the information available.

    If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

    CBT for Anxiety and Cognitive Restructuring

    Cognitive restructuring is one of the main components of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety. The previous post provided a brief overview of cognitive restructuring in CBT. Now we’re going to look at how to use cognitive restructuring to manage anxiety.

    We’ll examine some common types of negative thoughts and worries associated with anxiety. And then learn how to modify these thoughts with cognitive restructuring in ways that reduce our anxiety and make us less anxious.

    CBT for Anxiety and Cognitive Restructuring

    Cognitive restructuring is important in CBT because it helps us change how we’re thinking. And in CBT, changing our thoughts is one of the main ways we change how we feel. If we’re able to modify our worries and anxious thoughts in order to:

    • more accurately estimate a situation’s level of threat and danger
    • consider outcomes other than the worst case scenario
    • feel more confident in our abilities to cope with negative outcomes

    then we’ll start to reduce our anxiety.

    The questions in the Cognitive Restructuring for Anxiety Worksheet [download PDF] or [download Word] can help with cognitive restructuring of worries and anxious thoughts.

    Next we’ll learn how to complete a worry record. The worry record is a thought record that’s been modified to focus on worries, and guides us through the process of cognitive restructuring for anxiety. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.