How to Stop Arguing: A Formula that Really Works!

Learn How to Stop Arguing in Your Relationship (A step-by-step guide)

None of us want to fight with our loved ones, yet it is hard to know how to stop arguing in relationships.

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 of an avoidable argument.

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.

This article aims to learn how to stop arguing by bringing up a potentially controversial topics in a way that will lead to a discussion rather than an argument. 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 the original goal of a conversation, and we become reactive and irrational (He hit me over the head with a club, so I am now going to hit him 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.

Communication skills training has failed in the past 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 actually to test this idea. As it turns out, the research showed that expressing resentment increased rather than decreased resentful.

Happy couples have known how to avoid a fight without ever needing couples therapists.  The concept is simple: take the time and thought to bring up your differences respectfully.

If you prefer video learning to written text, here is a twenty-minute training video that details how to stop arguing by understanding John Gottman’s Four Hoursemen of the Apocalypse:


Follow John Gottman’s four-step “Gentle Startup: antidote to criticism” to raise a sensitive topic*:

Here is the step by step formula for how to stop an argument from every even starting:

I feel ________about___________. I appreciate ________ and need or request __________.

Here is how to fill in the blanks:

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 your Gentle Startup 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 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!

Someone can indeed 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 that falls flat nine 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 Gentle Startup Mistakes You Might Not Know you are Making

As you use this Gentle Startup Formula to stop arguing there are some common errors that may be hindering your efforts.

Follow these guidelines for the best chance of success

  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”.

A Free Gift For You 💕

Even when we learn how to stop arguing, a stellar relationship doesn’t come from the absence of conflict; it comes from the presence of warm connection and understanding.

Of all the communication skills you can learn, empathy is the one that makes good relationships great. Certified Gottman Couples Therapist, Laura Silverstein, has created a free video mini-series for couples to learn how to ask the questions that lead to closeness instead of conflict. You can enroll free by clicking the link below:

Empathy Made Easy: Free Mini-Course for Couples

Congratulations on your commitment to relationship wellness!


*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”.