Struggling to get your partner to listen? Try this…

Does This Sound Familiar?

John had turned his head and wished he were ANYWHERE in the world but in his kitchen listening to his wife Robin rant at him. “Why don’t you EVER…”

He had stopped hearing any of her words before she finished the first sentence of her diatribe. John did, however, most certainly recognize her tone of voice: critical, angry, frustrated and desperate. He had unfortunately heard it many times before. John’s body grew more tense and he suddenly yelled “And all YOU ever do is criticize and nag me. I’ve had ENOUGH!” Realizing his reply would only serve to intensify their argument, John regretted it for a quick moment and then braced himself for Robin’s retort. “Well that suits me fine. Why don’t you just get OUT!

Oh, a Soft Start-Up! Why didn’t I think of that?

Well, mostly because John Gottman did! In his research studying real couples (NOT actors on TV) under video surveillance in his “apartment laboratory,” Gottman discovered that happy and healthy couples acted differently than couples in relationship distress. Happy and healthy couples still argue, maintains Gottman, but do so very differently! One of the important ways these couples differ from their unhappy counterparts is the WAY one partner brings up or initiates a discussion. In the example above, Gottman would refer to the way Robin raised her concerns with John as a Hard Start-Up! This is in stark contrast to a Soft Start-Up which is a gentle, non-attacking, and more collaborative way of bringing up issues with a partner.

That sounds nice, but HOW exactly do I use a Soft Start-Up?

In contrast to Hard Start-ups used often by unhealthy couples in some level of distress, the Soft Start-Up is one of the hallmarks of healthy and happy couples. Follow these steps to initiate a Soft Start-Up:

1. Start the discussion with a positive statement of some kind (if possible). If relevant, acknowledge efforts made by your partner regarding one aspect of main topic.

2. Use “I” statements where you are speaking from your perspective and your feelings.

3. Recognize that your perspective is only one way of viewing the issue(s). Your partner may have a very different perspective and may not even be aware that a problem exists. In fact, there’s even a chance your partner may be more than happy to address your concern!

4. State your concerns directly, but in a respectful, non-attacking, and collaborative manner.

5. If your concern is addressed or your request is granted by your partner, show your appreciation!

Timing is everything

While following the above steps may help create a more productive dialogue between you and your partner, it is NOT the only determining factor. Choosing the right time to approach your partner may end up being just as critical as how you do so. So, what constitutes “the right time”?

The best opportunity to raise issues is when both partners: aren’t pressured, are in a relatively stress-free situation, and have energy for a discussion. Even more importantly, it is critical that both partners are NOT currently emotionally triggered. If one partner is too angry or upset, any subsequent discussion almost certainly will be counter-productive. (Gottman refers to this tendency as emotional flooding.)

Wait! I have some more questions about Soft Start-Ups

But I thought it was healthy to express my emotions. Why can’t I just vent?

While it is healthy to express yourself, expressing your frustrations by venting to your partner is NOT healthy for your relationship. It is much more productive for your relationship to follow the steps above that constitute a soft start-up. What happens when someone angrily vents their emotions, their partner rarely can hear any of the content and the only thing that gets communicated is the fact that their partner is angry!

OK, so what happens if I use a soft start-up and I become angry in the middle of it?

This is really an important question. Anytime one or both partners become too emotionally upset, it is critical that at least one partner recognize this and suggest they take a break. Otherwise the dialogue that ensues will be counter-productive and usually will create more distance in the relationship. However, when deciding to take a break, it is important that the couple agree on a future time to continue the discussion when both partners are calmed down and ready to complete the conversation.

My partner never listens anyway, why should I even try?

Well, one reason why it may appear your partner is not listening is because you may have used a Hard Start-up. Remember when heated emotions are involved the only thing that gets communicated is the fact that someone is upset. The person’s issue or concern usually gets completely lost in the process.

I’ve tried an approach pretty similar to a Soft Start-Up and it went nowhere?

I would first suggest paying attention to the timing of when you initiate a Soft Start-Up with your partner. However, if you have repeatedly done so with poor results and your relationship concerns are unresolved, it may be time to seek professional help with a couples therapist.

Let’s see what a Soft Start-Up actually looks like

Remember Robin and John? Robin realized her prior attempts to bring up issues with John were not only unsuccessful (see top of article), but proved to actually deepen the tension with John. So, she tried a new approach (soft startup) which did prove to be more successful:

Robin found John relaxing in the living room.

Robin: Oh… John, I wanted to thank you for taking care of that mess in the garage.

John: Sure. I’m glad that’s done.

R: If you have a minute, I wanted to talk to you about the kitchen.

J: What’s up?

R: Well, I’ve been feeling very frustrated and overwhelmed after coming home from work and seeing dishes scattered all over the kitchen. Is there a way you could help me out by making a point of putting the dishes into the dishwasher before I get home?

J: Robin, I’m not sure if you realize it, but those dishes are mostly the kids’ dishes – they’ve been slacking on their chores lately.

R: Oh, I didn’t realize that. Could you then get on them to put their dishes in the dishwasher?

J: Yeah, I could do that. I guess I haven’t been doing it ALL the time myself. I can do better myself.

R: Great. I’d really appreciate that.

Summing up the Soft Start-UP

1. Choose the right time – relatively stress-free situation.

2. Start with positive statement.

3. Use “I” statements.

4. State issue directly and respectfully.

5. Show appreciation to your partner.

6. Remember to take a break if either partner is too upset & reschedule discussion.


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