John Gottman — perhaps the world’s foremost relationship researcher — coined a concept he calls “softened-startup.” Softened startup is an antidote to one of his powerful findings that over 90% of conversations that start badly end badly. In contrasting thousands of “master” and “disaster “couples, Gottman found that a key characteristic of the couples that would later break up was jumping right into a difficult topic in an abrupt and abrasive way.

This is particularly problematic when done in the form of a criticism or accusation. Examples would be things like “You never make any plans for us!,” or “You always leave a mess in the kitchen!,” or “Why can’t you grow up and be an adult?!” These are referred to as harsh startups. They have an accusational tone, often include what I call universal quantifiers such as always and never, and portray the other person in a negative light.

What makes these kinds of statements problematic? For one thing, an accusation with an “always” or “never” virtually begs for a counterexample. Typically the response to “You always leave a mess,” will be something like “That’s not true — I just cleaned up on Tuesday!” A back-and-forth ensues, with each person mustering evidence to try to get his or her point of view across to the other. In the process a standoff is created in which both are so busy sending that neither is able to receive! Thus the over 90% bad endings. (Also see The Evidence Trap).

Going another level deeper, an accusatory statement, especially when framed as an absolute (e.g., always, never, you’re selfish), implies a black-and-white, all-or-nothing badness about the other person. Nothing good, only bad. Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as generally good people, so being defined as all bad — even if only in the moment — becomes a major threat to identity. The recipient then defends against that threat with attempts to redeem his or her image (“But I just cleaned up on Tuesday!”). However, the defense is a deflection of the accuser’s intended point, so the accuser will typically come back with a counter to the counter, and off the argument goes.

Anything that makes your partner feel bad or look bad is a potential threat to his or her identity.

Threats of any kind tend to activate the fight/flight system, which pushes people into their worst selves and sets the stage for escalating arguments (see Your Brain on Threat).

So how to execute a softened startup?

  • First, lead with something friendly that either a) empathizes with your partner’s experience, b) lets your partner know you care about them, or c) shows that you see their good parts too. Examples would be “I know you want to relax after a stressful workday and that you don’t naturally think of social plans,” or “I really love you,” or “You’re so great at managing lots of things.”
  • Second, make your statement of the problem less hard-edged by making it relative rather than absolute. For example, use words and phrases like “sometimes,” “a lot of the time,” “rarely,” etc. rather than always and never. Try to make it as non-blaming and non-judgmental as possible (watch out for derogatory or exaggerated descriptions like “lazy,” “out of control,” “rude,” “crazy,” etc.).
  • Finally, conclude with something that indicates how improving the situation would help you or make you feel better. E.g., “I would love it if you would pick up your clothes more often and it would make me feel loved and valued,” or “It would really help me if…”
  • Keep your whole presentation fairly brief — 3 to 4 sentences should do it. Any more risks overwhelming the listener.

While Gottman talks about this in terms of the start of the conversation — which is clearly important as it sets the tone for what follows — the same principles apply throughout. It’s good to develop awareness of, and avoid, any statements or accusatory questions that portray your partner in a mostly negative, or dramatically negative light, such as “Don’t you ever think about me?,” or “Nobody could meet your expectations.”

By the same token, be careful about expressing subjective experiences of your partner’s attitudes as absolute facts, as in “You don’t care about me,” or “You hate me.” If you’re going to say something like that, include your own subjectivity. For example “I worry that you don’t care about me,” or “Sometimes I think you hate me.” Or you can check it out with your partner by posing it as a question (“Do you care about me?”), or a request (“I need some reassurance that you care about me”).

There are lots of other ingredients to starting a potentially difficult discussion on a sturdier foundation, including picking a time when both of you are less stressed, and asking your partner if it’s a good (or at least OK) time for them. All of these are ways that you can soften your startups, and increase the chances of a better outcome.

If negative interactions have become dominant and habitual in your relationship then it will take some persistence to both master the softened startup and to build trust between you. But if you can do it consistently, softened startups (and softening the way you think about and express yourself in conflicts in general) can make a huge difference.

Image credit: Christian Reimer, on Visual Hunt.