Marriage researcher John Gottman has found that couples who get their tough conversations off to a gentle start up have greater success resolving conflicts.
Leading with anger, using a hostile tone in opening lines, a raised voice, disapproving looks, and body language that communicates disdain or contempt is likely to trigger hurt, fear and defensiveness. Off to a start like that, difficult conversations become impossible and don’t put either partner in a place of open-hearted listening, which is exactly what’s required to have a productive, connection-building outcome to difficult conversations. Putting some intention to initiating difficult conversations with an energy of kindness and compassion goes a long way to strengthening feelings of closeness and a sense of hopefulness. Communicating feelings of fondness and respect actually make it more likely that your partner will be open to hearing your complaint. The goal is to conduct conflict like loving friends who care about each other even when they need to sort out and process hurt feelings, disappointments and disagreements.
Based on Gottman’s work here are 10 tips to make a soft start up to difficult conversations that will enable you to stay lovingly connected while you work through a conflict.
1. Wait until the time is right. Start when you’re both cool, calm and collected and available. Begin with a non-threatening approach: “Something is on my mind that I’d like to talk about and I’m hoping I can clear up what’s bothering me. Are you up for a conversation right now?” If the time isn’t right, ask for a rain check and set up a time that works for both of you to address the matter. 2. Use a calm, softer than usual tone of voice. Approach your partner like you’re approaching your beloved friend not like an enemy. 3. Being with something positive: words of appreciation, a sincere compliment about recent words or deeds, an acknowledgement about how much the relationship means to you or empathy about pressure that may be creating a burden or creating a distraction from attending to your relationship. 4. Remember the difference between registering a complaint and making criticism. A complaint is identifying a problem that can be addressed. A criticism makes the problem the other person and rarely inspires a cooperative response. 5. Be polite. Use words like “please” and “I’d appreciate it if …” 6. Name your feelings. “I felt afraid when you were yelling at the kids yesterday.” Or “I felt hurt when you left the room in the middle of our conversation yesterday.” 7. Avoid absolutes. Not—“You NEVER pay attention to me in the evenings.” Instead, “I often feel lonely at night when you’re at the computer so long.” 8. Forgive mistakes, slights and disappointments, accept apologies and tolerate imperfections. Resist turning a bad moment into a doomed marriage. 9. Work to build and strengthen positive connection by being intentional about sharing tender words, affectionate touches and creating a sense of safety and warmth so that difficult conversations can be conducted in a context of a secure loving partnership. 10. Don’t wait to get professional help. When communication problems become chronic, affection, warmth and tenderness are the casualties. A history of hurt feelings can create relational distance and disconnection that can seem too big to bridge alone. Even just a few sessions with an experienced couples therapist can help you and your partner develop communication and relational skills to keep your connection strong, positive and loving.