None of us want to be fighting with our loved ones, yet it doesn’t take much to find ourselves immersed in an argument we can’t get out of. We have a long list of things we’d much rather be doing, yet once we get sucked in, it can take hours (or weeks?) to get out.
There is surprising new information available from top relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman. After a 30 year long study following newlywed couples into old-age, we now have a scientifically proven formula that really works. It has kept couples happily married well into old age. They didn’t even know how they were doing it, but thankfully, the research team was able to observe what they were doing and create a 4 step blueprint for the rest of us.
Of course all couples argue. It is 100% normal to have heated disagreements in all significant relationships. The point of this article is to learn how to bring up a potentially difficult topic in a way that will lead to a discussion rather than a knock-down-drag-out fight. The purpose of these conversations is to solve problems and make decisions, not to hurt one another’s feelings. Once a fight starts, it’s hard to remember this goal, and we become cavemen. “He hit me over the head with a club so I am now going to hit him over the head with a club.” Here is the alternative.
Conversations end the way they start 96% of the time: The secret to avoiding a fight is to start the conversation thoughtfully.
The reason communication skills training has failed in the past is because it has been focused primarily on listening skills. This was a fatal flaw. People were encouraged to talk openly and honestly about their feelings without editing them. The idea was that if both people could “vent” their resentments and disappointments, the steam would be let out and everyone would feel better. It took a while for someone to actually test this idea. As it turns out, the research showed that expressing resentments increased rather than decreased resentful.
What happy couples have known for years, the psychology community is slowly catching up in learning how to stop arguing. The concept is simple: take the time and thought to respectfully bring up your differences.
Follow John Gottman’s four step “Gentle Startup: antidote to criticism” to raise a sensitive topic*:
I feel ________about___________. I appreciate ________ and need or request __________.
Step 1. I feel ________
Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You” to avoid blame.
Do this: I feel very nervous and abandoned when I’m home alone not knowing where my family is.
Not this: You’re always late for dinner and you never think about anyone but yourself.
Step2. …about _____________
Describe what is happening objectively and non-judgmentally. Don’t offer your evaluation of what you think is going on for the other person
Do this: I’m the only one in the house and it’s 6:30, the time we usually have dinner.
Not this: You are selfish and careless, so wrapped up in your own world that it doesn’t even matter to you what time you come home…it could be midnight as far as you’re concerned.
Step 3. I appreciate ________________
Give appreciations. Noticing what people are doing right is always the best way to go. Take the time to search your brain for a time when the person did or is doing something right related to this issue
Do this: I know how hard they’ve been pushing you at work and I really appreciate all you put up with to provide for the family.
Step 4. I need (or request) ___________________
Talk clearly about what you need in positive terms. Express what you want specifically and explicitly, clarifying what you do want rather than what you don’t want
Do this: I’d really appreciate it if you could try to remember to call me by 5:00 to let me know what time you’ll be home
Not this: I do not want to be married to someone who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to leave me home alone waiting while dinner gets cold without even a phone call
Put it all together and it sounds like this:
I feel very nervous and abandoned when I’m home alone not knowing where my family is. I’m the only one in the house and it’s 6:30, the time we usually have dinner. I know how hard they’ve been pushing you at work and I really appreciate all you put up with to provide for the family. I’d really appreciate it if you could try to remember to call me by 5:00 to let me know what time you’ll be home.
Remember to be polite. Treat the person you are a talking to as someone worthy of basic manners, using phrases such as “please” and “I would appreciate it if…” Challenge your belief that this person “always or never” does the thing in question.
Here are some other examples that can show you how to tailor this formula into your own words. It works with children and bosses too:
I feel frustrated when I see the caulking in the bathroom hasn’t been finished yet. I know you have a bunch of projects on your to-do list and it’s a really messy, annoying job. I need to come up with a plan for when and how it is going to be finished.
(to a child) Buddy, that drumming on the table is giving me a headache, I know it’s fun to whack things with spoons but can you do it in the playroom please?
I was a little annoyed that there wasn’t any milk for my coffee this morning. I know how fast it disappears in our house. Can you please text me when you finish the milk so I can pick it up on my way home from work?
I’m sure this works great for everyone else, but it won’t work with my husband (wife, daughter, boss, teacher etc.), he (she) is just not a good communicator!
It is absolutely true that someone can do a textbook gentle startup and still not get a positive response. We human beings really don’t like to hear negative feedback. In fact the more we care about someone the more defensive we become. We don’t like the idea that we let down someone we love.
It is crucial to remember that all long term behavioral changes happen slowly. If we try something and it falls flat 9 times out of ten instead of 10 for 10, that is still a 10% improvement. Over the trajectory that 10% difference will grow like compounding interest.
Now of course our first assumption is that we are the stellar communicators and the person we are trying to converse with is at fault (I personally fall into this trap frequently, it’s an occupational hazard). You are probably right, alas you are the one reading this article right now, but I encourage you to continue to the next paragraph anyway.
5 Common Communication Mistakes you Might Not Know you are Making
1. Don’t sound like a robot. Remember it is called “gentle startup” for a reason. Find the softness in your voice, show it on your face and maybe grab a hand or rub a shoulder if appropriate. If there has been a lot of fighting between you, neutrality can be interpreted as sarcasm even if you don’t mean it to be.
2. Do not pause after step 2, or your partner will jump in and respond before you get a chance to express your appreciations which are the most important part of this formula.
3. Nasty prepositions: As soon as we say I feel like…, or I feel as if…, I feel that…, I feel that you, we are no longer talking about our feelings. We are masking an opinion, judgement or interpretation and pretending we are talking about our feelings.
4. Don’t go global. I cannot stress enough how difficult it is for most of us to hear negative feedback from someone we are trying to impress. People respond better to a discussion about a single episode than to a personality critique. “I’m worried that you are an alcoholic” will be harder to hear than “I was really worried about you last night when I saw how sick you were from drinking…” Even if there is a very long list of single episodes, it is much more productive to start the conversation discussing something specific and then the topic can expand if the tone turns to problem solving.
5. Edit all caveats. “I appreciate that you’re a great dad” is perfect with a period at the end of the sentence. The appreciation becomes lost if you say, “I appreciate that you’re a great dad when you’re actually home”.
Once the conversation starts off on a good note, both people may be pulled to explain their point of view which can lead to a defensive communication pattern. Read this article on How to Stop Being Defensive to make sure that the conversation continues to be solution-oriented.
Also, try this Pop Quiz! to test your relationship knowlege in other areas.
*The antidote to Criticism first appeared in “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” (Gottman 1988) and has since been revised from “Complain without Blame” to “Teach Gentle Start Up”.