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.