An example of what not to do is something I did for years. I would come to Russ with a stressful problem/situation and share the details. For Russ, it would be like throwing a hand grenade at him and asking him to be calm.
Have you heard of the softened start-up before having a difficult conversation? I had never heard about this until our counselor, Dr. “Boyd” Whaley, introduced this Gottman principle to us.
Because of his potential to magnify, the response would sometimes be a terse argumentative reaction. This would throw me off because I needed someone to step into the problem and help me fix it, not fight about it.
Over time, we learned this method of doing a softened start-up when delivering news that might trigger each other’s hotspot.
Our latest successful attempt looked like this…I had spent hours trying to resolve a problem that had gotten out of control. Instead of telling Russ there was no resolution, I started off by saying “I’ve done everything in my power to take care of this situation and I cannot resolve it. I need you to help me think of alternatives.”
The softened start-up prepares Russ for what is coming instead of the problem blindsiding him. Our conversations are significantly better with a softened start-up.
When Russ does a softened start up with me, it tells me he is trying to come across in a thoughtful way regarding a difficult topic, so I am immediately more mindful and understanding in my response. If Russ doesn’t use a softened start-up with me, I can feel attacked and then there is no talking with me after that point. He’s learned over time to preface things he knows are difficult for me to hear.
We all use these skills. Softened start-up is basically the way we treat guests- respectfully and courteously.
Soften Start-up has six components*:
1. Start the conversation gently – Complain but don’t blame. Complaining is okay, but criticizing is not. Criticizing is a statement-often generalization, using words such as “always” and “never”- that attack another person’s character. On the other hand, effective complaining looks like this: • Describe the situation non-judgmentally • Express how you feel about it • Ask for what you need.
2. Make statements that start with “I” instead of “you.” Psychologist Thomas Gordon noted that when statements start with the word “You” instead of the word “I,” they are usually more likely to be critical and to make your partner defensive. Say this: “I would like it if you’d listen to me.” Instead of this: “You aren’t listening to me.” Don’t’ cheat and form an “I” statement that is actually a “You” statement such as: “I think you’re mean.”
3. Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. Instead of accusing or blaming, just describe what you see happening, non-judgmentally. Say this: “For the last seven evenings, I’ve cleaned up the kitchen by myself.” Instead of this: “You don’t help clean up.”
4. Talk clearly about wat you need in positive terms. Say what you wish for or hope for, and/or what you want more of (versus what you don’t want). Instead of asking your partner to guess what you need, or to read your mind, express it explicitly. Say this: “I’d appreciate it if you would clean your stuff off the dining room table.” Instead of this: “This dining room is a total mess!”
5. Be polite. Make requests politely, adding such phrases as “please” and “I would appreciate it if…”
6. Give appreciations – Noticing what our partners are doing right is always the best way to go. If your partner has, at some point, been better in this situation, then ask for what you need, and couch it within an appreciation of what your partner did right in the past, and how much you miss that now. Be Specific! Don’t Store Things Up! Say this: “I always appreciate it when you make the bed in the morning. I miss that.” Instead of this: “You never make the bed in the morning.” While being specific is a better idea than global criticism, storing things up is not a good idea.
*Copyright 2000—2011 by Drs. John & Julie Gottman. Distributed under license by The Gottman Institute, Inc.
Comment below if you feel this might be effective. We’d love to hear your feedback.
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