Want to be one of those couples that can communicate more clearly with each other? Read on to find out how to initiate a ‘soft start-up’ the next time you want to discuss something with your partner.
Have you ever finished a long, stressful day of work, only to come through the front door and have your partner immediately start listing all the things you failed to do right that day or week? Or perhaps you remember a time where you’ve done the same to your partner?
Sometimes, the way we speak to our partners about things that are upsetting us can leave a lot to be desired. But how we begin our discussions can make a real difference to how much our partner is able to listen and hear what we are trying to say.
There is a better way to start a conversation with your partner – using a ‘soft start-up’.
How you say something is almost more important that what you say
When it comes to starting a conversation in the best way possible, we like to use what renowned relationship psychologists John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute refer to as a soft start-up.
Many couples fall into the trap of initiating communication with a harsh or even aggressive start-up such as, “Why didn’t you clean the kitchen?!”, complete with a blaming tone and furrowed brow. All this tends to achieve is that the person on the receiving ends gets defensive, starts firing accusations back, which leads to a yelling match. Or they may even shut down completely, retreating into silence for hours or days on end.
Instead, soft start-ups are about approaching a conversation in a gentler way, so that your partner can better receive what you are saying, and you can come to a more amicable resolution for both of you.
Here are our top pieces of advice, straight from the therapy room, on how to execute a soft start-up, and increase your chances of making your next difficult conversation more successful.
1. Choose the right time to talk
Before launching into a conversation about something that’s bothering you with no warning, always check in with your partner, and ask: “Is now an okay time to talk?” Choose a moment when you don’t have spectators, especially children and young people, and don’t jump on them unexpectedly, like the moment they’ve walked in the door from work.
If it’s not a good time right then, organise a specific time for the near future when you can chat, and commit to sticking to the time you’ve chosen.
2. Remember your manners
It’s amazing how many of us use tones and language with our partners that we would never use with our friends, extended family, or colleagues. It’s somewhat understandable too – there’s generally nobody else who can get us as emotionally riled up as our partners, precisely because we care about them so much, and they are such a huge part of our lives.
But remembering to keep a calm and respectful tone of voice can make a real difference in the how a conversation between the two of you goes.
As the Gottman Institute says, ‘adding phrases such as ‘please’ and ‘I appreciate it’ can be helpful for maintaining warmth and emotional connection during a difficult conversation’.
This applies even if your partner isn’t necessarily being so calm and polite themselves. Try to keep your cool rather than raising your voice or snapping back at them.
3. Try and avoid accusations
If you launch into your conversation with an accusation, you can more or less guarantee that it won’t set the scene for the rest of your discussion to go well. Accusations tend to be swiftly rebuffed, or flat out denied, which tends to bring a conversation to a dead end before it has even begun.
Instead, start by clearly describing the situation that’s bothering you, expressing how you feel about it, and then ask for what you feel would remedy or resolve the situation for you.
It helps to use ‘I’ statements in these conversations versus ‘you’ statements. For example, ‘I feel exhausted and disappointed when I come home and the place is a mess’ rather than, ‘you make me so angry when you don’t clean up after yourself’.
4. Admit to your own mistakes
Nobody’s perfect, and it’s likely you’ve also made some mistakes or missteps that have contributed to the current situation. If you find yourself always painting yourself as a martyr, try to practice some self-reflection, and own up to some of your own flaws, and bring them up with your partner. This models behaviour that they can then reciprocate. They may in turn be more willing to reflect on their own mistakes, rather than feeling like they’re being lectured or preached to.
5. State the facts, and don’t exaggerate or generalise
When explaining your concerns to your partner, try and avoid adding comments that evaluate the situation, make a judgement, or make broad, sweeping generalisations. If you catch yourself using words like ‘always’ or ‘never’, it’s a good indication that you may be generalising or exaggerating.
Instead of saying something like, ‘you never help by cleaning up,’ try ‘I’ve noticed over the last few months that the house is really messy a lot of the time of the time’.
6. Focus on one concern at a time
Don’t store things up for weeks, months or years, and then unload all at once. Try and express concerns as they arise, or if this isn’t possible, raise one thing at a time in your conversation. Too often in difficult conversations we let one issue lead to another. We end up bringing up a whole list of issues and end up with none of it being heard.
7. Ask for what you need
Finally, instead of firing off a list of gripes and leaving it there, try to also come prepared to offer some suggestions on what would help rectify the situation for you. It helps if you phrase this in a positive way as well. Instead of suggesting things you think your partner could perhaps stop doing, suggest things that they could start doing.
So, instead of ‘stop leaving your stuff lying around everywhere’, try something like ‘I’d really appreciate if you could start tidying up as you go along’.
Remember that practise makes perfect
Many of us feel as though our partner ‘should’ be able to always calmly listen to and interpret everything we throw at them, no matter how it’s delivered. But the truth is, we’re all human, and all get defensive when we feel like we’re being attacked.
Tackling new ways of communicating with your partner takes practice, but eventually they stick. When you’re starting out, sometimes it can help to think a conversation through and practice your soft start-up, even on your own in front of the mirror.
Remember that having communication struggles doesn’t mean you’re wrong for each other. Couples can get stuck in poor communication habits, and their disappointment in not being able to get through to each other can end up leading them to fear the relationship itself is not tenable.
If there is deeper trouble afoot, then being able to talk more effectively will also help you to look at that in safer and more productive ways.