Communicate Better In Your Relationship With Timeouts

Timeouts are a great way to help us manage our emotions during difficult conversations with our partner. A timeout gives us a break that allows us to cool down and calm our emotions. Then once we’ve taken this break, we return from the timeout and finish whatever we were talking about.

Timeouts prevent discussion from getting too heated or turning into big arguments or fights. And they allow us to discuss difficult topics without our emotions getting in the way, making it more likely we’re able to come to a resolution.

Improve Communication with Timeouts

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

When we’re talking something over with our partners the more tensions start to rise the more emotional either or both of us start to feel the less likely it is we’re going to be able to continue the discussion productively in a way that leads towards a resolution rather than turning into an argument or fight.

Now there are a few ways we can try to prevent tensions from escalating. We can soften our startups and bring things up with each other in a more gentle manner to set the stage for a more constructive conversation. And we can use repair attempts to ease tensions whenever they do start to rise. And i have videos that describe both of these techniques in detail that i’ll link to in the description.

But once tensions start to rise past a certain level and we start reacting emotionally towards each other, not listening to each other, or we’re getting defensive, upset or angry, then we need to take a break for a bit and allow things to cool down enough that we can then continue our discussions in a calmer and more constructive manner. In other words it’s time to take a time out. So in this video we’ll look at what we mean by a time out, why timeouts are important, and the best way to implement them.

Now pretty much everyone knows what a timeout is, and in the context of communication it can be any sort of break we take in the midst of a heated discussion that allows us and our partners to cool off and calm down enough, that we can then come back together and resume the conversation on a more even keel when emotions aren’t running so high.

So it’s great if we can use a non-verbal signal to indicate we want to take a timeout. If we say something like, “I’m starting to feel really upset, i don’t think i can talk about this right now can we take a little break?” This can sometimes lead to an argument about whether or not it’s okay to take a break right now. But if we feel the need to take a break then it’s important that we’re able to take it. And using a signal to indicate the timeout can make it less likely that we start arguing about it than if we were to make a verbal request.

And of course we need to agree upon this signal with our partners in advance. Maybe we use the standard timeout signal. But if we don’t like that we can come up with our own, like tapping ourselves on the head, or folding our hands together like the emoji. Or we can even both use different signals anything is fine as long as it’s clear what it means and our partners don’t find it obnoxious.

And it’s okay to use a verbal statement for a time out as long as we’ve agreed upon it in advance. And it needs to be short and to the point, unambiguous, and not up for debate. Something as direct as simply time out, or let’s take a break.

And we can never tell someone else that they need to take a timeout. If our partners seem so upset or angry that we’re convinced that they’re not able to continue the conversation in a productive manner, we can still ask to take a break as long as we don’t frame it in terms of, you need to take a timeout, or you need to take a break.

And then once we’ve indicated we want to take a break there’s no more discussion we can go do whatever we need to do to cool down without debate and we leave the room calmly no storming out or slamming the door. And no pleading for the other person this day, or following them out the room still talking. A timeout starts immediately.

And a timeout needs to last at least 20 minutes in order for us to have enough time to cool down. Some people may need an hour or even two, or it can vary depending on the situation. If we come back too soon tensions can start escalating again right away. But if we stay away too long our partners can get impatient and frustrated. So it’s important that they know that even if we’re taking a while we’re still going to come back and finish the conversation.

So it’s good to have a process in place. First the agreed upon signal or verbal request. And then a general time frame: a timeout will last half an hour and if one of us still needs more time we’ll check in with a quick text to say we need another half hour. Or if we’re generally going to need more than half an hour the check-in could take place after an hour. But again the check-in is not a discussion or debate. It’s a simple request for more time that needs to be honoured, not an invitation to start arguing over text about how they need to come back right now. But we do always need to come back

And the sooner we take a time out the better the less time we’ll need to cool off. We don’t want to wait until we’re so enraged that we’re about to explode or we can’t think clearly anymore. We should take a time out as soon as our levels of emotional arousal start to hit around four or above out of ten. Because at that point we’re starting to feel so emotional that we’re not able to continue listening or communicating that effectively anymore. And we need to give ourselves a break until we can calm ourselves back down to a level of about 3 out of 10 or below.

And often one of us wants a timeout because we feel like we’re unable to keep talking about things right now, but the other person is really upset and urgently wants to keep talking about things until they get resolved. And even if we’re feeling like we really need to keep talking about this right now and find it hard to stop and don’t want to take a break, we’ll probably benefit from taking a break. Because if we’re so desperate not to take a break until we’ve resolved whatever we’re talking about our own emotions are probably running pretty high. And we’ve probably reached a point where we’re not communicating or listening as effectively as we could.

So even if our partners have called for the break and we’re anxious to get right back to talking about things, instead of anxiously pacing back and forth waiting for them to return, which will keep us at a heightened emotional level, we need to use this break to calm our emotions and allow ourselves to cool down.

And then during the break or timeout we need to have a plan in place to help calm ourselves down some people like going for a walk or a run or a drive. Or maybe we like taking a long shower or a bath. Or we call a friend and talk for a bit. Or we listen to some music or a relaxation exercise. Or we do some meditation or yoga—just anything that helps us calm down and reset mentally and emotionally.

But it’s important to remember that there are three parts to taking a timeout. The first is actually taking the time out. The second is doing something during the break to calm our emotions and allow ourselves to reset. And then the third is to come back together with our partners and finish the conversation. And this third part cannot be skipped. Once we do cool off enough to be able to talk about things again we absolutely have to return and resume the conversation..

And this is a huge issue in many relationships. If one of us feels like the other is using a break or timeout as an excuse to get out of talking about something, then we’re going to resist allowing them to take a timeout, because we think if we stop talking about this now we’re never going to finish it. You always want to leave as soon as we disagree about something. We never get to finish a conversation. Don’t walk away from me when I’m trying to talk to you.

So it’s so important that we don’t just use the timeout as a free pass to get out of talking about an uncomfortable topic. A timeout is not an avoidance technique. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s a tool that gives us the ability to have difficult conversations, because when it feels like it’s too hard to continue talking about something, we can take a break. And then this allows us to come back to whatever we were talking about and discuss it in a less emotionally charged atmosphere when we’re both feeling a little calmer.

Now what if there isn’t time to continue a discussion after a timeout? Maybe we started talking about something over breakfast and if we take a time out there’s no time to come back to it and talk about it before we go to work. Or we start talking about something late at night and if we take a time out now it’s going to be the middle of the night before we can start talking about it again.

Well this is a good reason not to start potentially difficult conversations unless we know we’re going to have time to finish them. And it’s a good idea to schedule these conversations so that we don’t run into these sorts of time issues. But sometimes we’re just talking and we don’t know that things could get heated enough to warrant a timeout. Or sometimes we’re just really upset and bring something up spontaneously.

So in these instances we still need to be able to take a time out and give ourselves and our partners time to cool down, even though we may not be able to come back and talk about it in an hour or two, and we might have to wait until later that evening or even later the next day. And that’s fine, but we just need to check in with our partners to let them know what’s going.

I’m sorry i had to rush out this morning, let’s finish this conversation when we get home tonight.

I’m really tired and can’t talk about this anymore tonight, but let’s talk about it tomorrow.

And then no texting back and forth continuing the discussion during the day and just waiting until whenever we’ve set aside the time to continue the conversation before bringing things back up again.

And then when we resume the conversation we want to ease into it gently, not picking right back up where we left off if it was in the middle of a fight or argument, but going back a few steps before things started to get so heated and going from there, this time starting from a calmer and less emotionally charged place. And softening our start-ups or using repair attempts can help get things started on a better note than we ended off with before taking the time out.

Thanks for coming back and talking about this I’m sorry i lost my temper before.

Or i didn’t mean to get so upset. Let’s try to work this out.

So timeouts are an important tool in managing our emotions during difficult conversations, allowing us to cool down enough to be able to continue discussing these topics without our emotions getting in the way, making it much more likely we’ll be able to engage in productive conversations that lead to a resolution.

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.