Some of my most popular posts are on 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 world-renowned research on couple dynamics and communication. Their book The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work has become a best-seller because it focuses on such practical aspects of your relationship that you can start to make changes in.
One of their hugely popular couple communication concepts is the idea of the ‘soft start-up.’
What is a soft start-up?
The Gottman soft start-up is simply about approaching a conversation with your partner in a soft way so that your partner can better receive what you are saying in a positive way.
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].
In John Gottman’s research, when you start a conversation with tension or harshness, it’s almost certain that you will end the conversation with tension because of destructive behaviour. Perhaps you’ve noticed this yourself?
How do you communicate with a soft start-up?
There are several tips that can help you start a conversation or raise an issue in your emotional connection by using it.
1. Choose your timing carefully
Before you even think about raising an issue or starting a conflict discussion, 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. Also, avoid noisy and crowded environments. You want to ensure you’re both relaxed and able to focus on one another without interruptions.
2. Start with something positive
Starting your conversation with a positive statement can make a huge difference in how both you receive it. It also sets the scene for your conversation.
For example, saying, “Darling, I want to let you know that I appreciate how hard you’re working now to save money for our deposit” before you discuss a money issue can help you get off to a strong start.
3. Own your feelings and use “I” statements
Another essential part of the soft startup is to own your feelings and use “I” statements.
This has a two-fold effect. One, your partner will be less defensive and display far fewer expressions because you’re sharing your feelings, not commenting or interpreting the feelings of your partner. Secondly, using “I” statements helps because when you take ownership of your experience, it’s less likely to be heard by your partner as blame and lessens the chances of having an argument harshly.
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 latter is more likely to have your partner defend their position and attack back.
4. Watch your tone of voice
Being mindful of your tone of voice can also help with the soft start-up and a positive outcome to your conversation.
As humans, we are wired to be sensitive to threats, and threats can be perceived through the voice and the vocal tone. There can be a fine line between assertive communication and aggressive communication.
Check your tone as you start to speak on the same note. Is there an edge to it? Is the argument harsh? Softening your tone and maintaining warmth is a must to keep a healthy conversation. If it helps, notice any tension in your voice or body language and consciously relax your throat and vocal cords.
5. Share a complaint, but don’t criticise
It’s normal to have complaints from our partners. In fact, a complaint if you make it clear what outcome you desire can be very healthy for partners to share with each other.
The problem starts when complaints become 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 behaviours and make it clear what you dislike, how you feel, and how you would like them to change.
6. Make requests for change
Picking up from the last point, complaints and negative emotions without any requests for change are also unhelpful. If you share your feelings and complaints, your partner may not understand what it is you want. It may be hard to have conflict discussions when resolving relationship conflicts.
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 also help your partner understand where your irritation is coming from. This understanding can then help them be more mindful of your values in the relationship and what will please and displease them.
Soft start-ups can be a very effective tool to use when you’re needing to have a difficult conversation and release a negative emotion. Try it out and see what happens to the communication between you next time you need to raise an issue. You might be surprised by the results.
Do you need relationship help?
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.