When you’re facing a conflict in your relationship, one of the most effective things you can do to initiate a discussion that avoids turning into a fight is to learn how to soften your startup.
Disagreements tend to end with at least as much tension as they begin with. If you bring up the subject of a conflict with angry words, blaming and criticizing your partner, it’s likely the discussion will end in even more anger, blame and criticism. However, if you’re able to soften your startup—the way in which you broach the topic—you can have productive discussions with your partner on even the most sensitive subjects.
If you’re feeling too angry and upset to discuss things gently, then it’s better to wait until you’ve calmed down enough to approach the discussion from a less angry and more calm perspective. But once you’re ready to have a conversation, rather than an argument, below are some ways to soften your startup, avoid fighting, and promote discussion with your partner.
1. Complain, But Don’t Blame: Tell your partner what’s bothering you rather than blaming them. For example, instead of blaming your partner and saying something like:
Phrase your complaint like this:
When you to bring up difficult topics in terms of a complaint instead of assigning blame, you open the door for a discussion rather than merely provoking a defensive or angry response that leads to a fight. Here is a helpful handout about complaining versus criticizing.
2. Use “I” Statements: Phrase your complaints in terms of “I” statements instead of “You” statements. In other words, begin your statements with “I” instead of “You.” For example, instead of, “You’re not paying attention to me,” say something like “I would appreciate it if you could pay attention to what I’m saying right now.” Instead of, “You don’t care about me or my feelings,” say something like “I’m feeling neglected.”
You statements are a type of blame, and they are difficult to respond to without becoming defensive, which shuts down any chance to have a discussion. I statements can get across the same message, but in a softer way that invites a conversation.
3. Simply Describe What’s Happening: When bringing up a complaint, instead of judging or evaluating a situation, just describe what is happening. Judgments use words like “always,” “never,” and “should” such as a statement like, “You never do anything fun with me.” Describing what’s happening involves simply stating of facts of a situation, for example, “I’m staying home by myself tonight while you’re going out with your friends. That’s the third time this week that’s happened.”
Instead of making a judgement like, “Why do I always have to do everything around here?” simply describe the situation in terms such as, “I’ve been cleaning the house for the last half hour while you’ve been watching TV.”
4. Be Clear: When making a complaint, be clear about what’s bothering you. Don’t expect your partner to be able to read your mind. Be as specific as you can about your complaint and what you would like from your partner. Make sure you don’t just talk about what you don’t want them to do, but ask for what it is you want them from them instead.
Just because you know what something means doesn’t mean your partner will understand. If you say something like, “We never spend any time together,” you may know exactly what you mean by that and what you want your partner to do. But it might mean something completely different to them, or they may be confused because they already think you spend time together.
So instead of saying, “We never spend any time together,” be clear and be specific about what you want. Say something like, “I’d really like to go out to dinner with you this weekend and then come home and watch a movie”; or “We used to go for drives in the country and have picnics together. I wish we could still do that once a month or so.”
If you’d like your partner to be more tidy, instead of saying, “You’re such a slob,” be more specific and say, “When you’re done making lunch, I’d appreciate it if you could put your dishes in the dishwasher and wipe down the counter.” Make requests in clear statements that tell your partner what you want and don’t leave them having to guess.
When you put these four steps together, you learn to begin complaint conversations with softer start-ups. You use statements such as:
This is much softer and inviting startup than something like:
The first statement is softer and opens the door for further discussion. The second leaves your partner feeling attacked, defensive, and likely to respond by attacking you back or just shutting down and not wanting to talk at all.
That’s why a softened startup is so important. The harsh startup leads to fighting, attacking and blaming each other further and leaves you both feeling worse than before you started talking. Or it leaves the person who feels attacked shutting down and not wanting to talk about it. But a softened startup invites productive discussions, promotes resolutions, and leaves you feeling closer to each other.