So much of my time spent with people is about communication. Why is that? I think it’s because we know that communication is one of those things that all of us can seek to improve.
Communication is also something that when changed, can have immediate and positive benefits on your relationship.The Gottmans are famous for their research on the dynamics of relationships and communication. Their book The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work has become a best-seller because it focuses on many of the practical aspects of relationships that you can begin to make changes in.
One of their most popular couple communication concepts is the idea of the ‘soft start-up’.
What is the soft start-up?Simply put, the soft start-up is about approaching a conversation with your partner in a soft way, so that your partner can better receive what you are saying. Many couples fall into the trap of initiating communication with a harsh start-up such as, “Why didn’t you clean the kitchen?!” [said with a blaming tone].
The Gottmans found out through their research that when you start a conversation with tension or harshness, it’s almost certain that you will end the conversation with tension. Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself?
When you start a conversation with tension or harshness, it's almost certain that you will end the conversation with tension.
So, how do you communicate with a soft start-up?
Here are several tips that can help you start a conversation or bring up an issue in your relationship by utilizing the soft start-up approach.
1. Choose your timing carefully
Before you even think about bringing an issue to the floor or beginning a difficult conversation, make sure you’ve got your timing right.
Don’t choose a time when one or both of you are stressed, rushed or dealing with other matters, and avoid noisy and crowded environments. You want to make sure you’re both relaxed and able to focus on one another without any interruptions.
2. Start with something positive
Starting your conversation with a positive statement can make a gigantic difference to how you are received by your partner. It also sets the tone for your conversation.
For example, saying, “Sweetheart, I want to let you know that I really appreciate how hard you’re working at the moment to save money for our deposit”, before you discuss a financial concern can help you get off to a strong start.
3. Own your feelings and use “I” statements
Another important part of the soft start-up is to own your feelings and use “I” statements.
This has a two-fold effect. First, your partner will be less defensive because you’re sharing your own feelings, not commenting or interpreting the feelings of your partner. Next, using “I” statements helps because when you take ownership of your experience, it’s less likely to be heard by your partner as blame.
For example, “When you left this morning and didn’t turn the dishwasher on, I felt annoyed when I came home” is much more palatable than “You are so lazy and forgetful- why didn’t you remember to turn the dishwasher on like I asked you?” The former is more likely to get you a positive response and the later is more likely to have your partner defend their position and attack back.
4. Watch your tone of voice
Be mindful of your tone of voice, this can help with the soft start-up and establish a positive outcome to your conversation.
As humans, we are wired to be sensitive to threat, and threat can be perceived through the voice and it's tone. There can be fine line between assertive communication and aggressive communication.
Check in on your tone as you start to speak. Is there an edge to it? Is there a harshness? If so, see if you can soften your tone. If it helps, notice any tension in your voice and consciously relax your throat and vocal cords.
As humans, we are wired to be sensitive to threat, and threat can be perceived through the voice and it's tone. There can be a fine line between assertive communication and aggressive communication.
5. Share a complaint, but don’t criticize
It’s normal to have complaints of our partners. In fact, a complaint can be healthy for partners if you make it clear what outcome you want to achieve.
The problem starts when complaints turn into criticisms. Any attack on the character of your partner, including global statements of their failings (“you never” or “you always”) can railroad any productive conversation very quickly.
Focus on specific behaviors and make it clear what you dislike, how you feel and how you would like them to change.
6. Make requests for change
Furthermore, complaints without any requests for change are also unhelpful. If you just share your feelings and complaints, your partner may not understand what it is you want.
Let your partner know the specific change you’re wanting. For example, “When you leave your clothes on the floor I feel irritated because I have a need for a clean house, so I’m asking you to please put your clothes in the basket”.
You might have noticed that in this example, the speaker also expressed their need. An expression of your greater need—like a need for cleanliness and organization—can help your partner understand where your irritation is coming from. This understanding can help them be more mindful of your values in the relationship and what will please and displease them.
The soft start-up can be a very effective tool to use when you have to have a difficult conversation. Try it out and see what happens to the communication the next time you need to raise an issue. You might be surprised by the results.