When you fly, do you pay close attention to the aircraft’s take-off? Maybe not. But don’t neglect your take-off when approaching your partner with a grievance or complaint.
Marriage researcher John Gottman calls it your start-up.
Studies reveals that couples who consistently get their tough conversations “off the ground” poorly face a high likelihood of divorce. What gets them into trouble? The harsh start-up. It’s when the opening lines of a complaint feature a hostile tone, a disapproving look, a raised voice, plus put-downs, disdain or contempt for a spouse’s traits — all the ways we trigger hurt and fear, along with the defensiveness that inevitably follows.
Better is the soft start-up. It’s the kinder, gentler way to raise the curtain on a conversation that can, without care, turn quickly sour. Here are some ways to assure a soft start-up:
- Wait until the time is right — you’re both cool, calm and collected — and begin with a non-threatening approach: “Something’s on my mind that I’d like to talk about, and I’m hoping we can clear up what’s bothering me. Are you up for a conversation right now?” If the time isn’t right, ask for a rain check.
- Use a calm, softer-than-usual tone of voice; approach like a friend, not an enemy. (see Voice Effects).
- Begin with something positive: words of appreciation, a sincere compliment about recent words or deeds, an acknowledgement about how much the relationship means to you.
- Complain (about the situation) but don’t blame (your partner). Better: “I’m frustrated to come home and find the kitchen countertops such a mess.” Poorer: “Why can’t you straighten up around here sometimes?”
- Be polite. Use words like “please” and “I’d appreciate it if you...”
- Name your feelings. “I felt afraid when you were yelling at the kids yesterday.” Or “I felt hurt when you left the table in the middle of our conversation.”
- Avoid absolutes. Better: “I often feel lonely at night, when you’re at the computer so long.” Poorer: “You never pay attention to me in the evenings.”
“The research shows,” writes Gottman, “that if your discussion begins with a harsh start-up, it will inevitably end on a negative note ... A harsh start-up simply dooms you to failure. So if you begin a discussion that way, you might as well pull the plug, take a breather, and start over.”i
An earlier version of this Tip appeared in September, 2010.
i Gottman, John M. The seven principles for making marriage work. Three Rivers Press: New York, 1999.