How to Stop Arguing: A Formula that Really Works!

Couple-fighting-fair-1000x400pxLearn How to Stop Arguing (A step-by-step guide)

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”.

Want More Communication Skills Training?

Sign up now for my Online Communication Skills Training Course-Let’s Talk: Save Time with Effective Communication. I walk you through the 3 Crucial Communication Skills in a video tutorial format that you can watch out of the comfort of your own home. It’s hosted by Skillshare which is free for the first month!

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*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”.


This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Alice

    Great article! You covered basic Gottman research in conversational language and with reassurance that gentle start up can be learned and will make a difference.

  2. Chad

    As someone who unfortunately finds himself in heated and often volatile arguments, I Gould this to be extremely helpful.These are tactics that I will definitely begin employing immediately.

  3. Lauramts

    Hi Chad, thanks so much for your comment! I appreciate your openness and willingness to try something new and really hope that your conversations start to feel more productive. Best of luck to you!

  4. Tnerb

    My girlfriend and I got into a huge fight last night that could have been something small had I followed these guidelines.i am too defensive but in the heat of the moment cant seem to remember / care about it. Any suggeations to a defensive sometimes irrational figher like myself?

  5. Lauramts

    Hi Tnerb, Thanks for your response! Try to remember that conflict is part of 100% of relationships (true statistic!). Of course it’s easier to recognize how you could have done things differently after the fact, but usually that’s how change happens, first you recognize the improvement you’d like to make, then you learn your skills, and then slowly you will get better and better at remembering to implement them.

    I recommend the blog post on How to Stop Being Defensive since you identified that as one of your areas of improvement.
    It sounds like you really understand the importance of nurturing your relationship so keep up the good work!

  6. Connie

    When I bring up any topic that my boyfriend doesn’t want to discuss – he shuts down and of course, this makes my voice and arguments worse. yes, we end up exactly where I started and angry.
    I am panicked because we spent (MY) money to purchase big ticket items for our home. He contributed zero because he has nothing. We thought I would receive an insurance lawsuit check and found out it is next to nothing. Now, since we have been together, I have depleted every dime of my 401K, etc. He is self employed when he is motivated and has not been. Now, he has received an inheritance after his Mother’s death. Nothing major but, he is busy spending it all on himself like a kid in a candy store. We will both enjoy the hot tub, deck, etc but, due to no insurance, the bills WE made up until now, will need to be paid off. I went into a panic because he is excited and non-stop with spending everything. I told him I am drowning and need his help. He felt like this inheritance is his. Now, I have $15,000 in CC and trying to remind, plead and beg him for help before his money is all spent. He shuts down. Says I am a downer and then tells me his old girlfriend knew how to “handle him” in conversations. (She must have had the skills you describe). How do we have this discussion that he avoids before he has blown all of his money and is unable to help me? He won’t engage if I don’t approach him right. He has told me this.

  7. Lauramts

    Hi Connie,
    Thanks so much for sharing your situation and for leaving your comments. I am sure you are not alone with the difficulty of having conversations about money and of course there is never a 100% guarantee that good communication skills will work the way that you intend them. The most important thing is to approach any difficult conversation when you are calm and level headed so you can bring up the topic with warmth and empathy. I am taking a guess here, but imagine that both of you want to have a productive conversation. Perhaps he is avoidant because he is concerned the conversation will turn into a fight. I have created a communication skills training course on Skillshare. (It’s free for the first month) The two sections I think will be particularly helpful are #3 What Makes Communication Fail and #11 How to Empathize Without Making it Worse) Click Here to Preview Communication Course Hope this helps!

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