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Gentle Start-Ups Improve Conflict Discussions

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Conflict is unavoidable, but how we fight, in particular how we start the conversation can have a huge impact on where the conversation goes. A six-year longitudinal study by Dr John Gottman and Sybil Carrère found that discussions that start with a great deal of negative emotion and criticism, are more predictive of divorce.

94% of the time, the way a discussion starts will determine the way it ends. - Dr John Gottman

Starting a conversation with blame or criticism will elicit defensiveness from your partner, and then you start doing the dance of counterattacking, with neither of you feeling heard or having your needs met.

So, what is a gentle start-up and how do I do it?

1) To formulate your gentle start up, first have clarity about, "What do I feel?" and "What do I need?"

2) Use "I"-statements to tell your partner what you need - this way you are less likely to be critical (e.g., "I feel..." or "I need..."). But be careful - express it as a need. For example, "I don't feel heard right now" rather than "I feel like you never listen to me" which is still phrased as blame.

3) Start the conversation with a legitimate complaint, but don't frame it as blaming your partner or being critical. This way your partner is much more likely to be open to hearing your concern.

4) Stick to descriptive rather than judgemental statements. Describe how you feel or what has happened, rather than blaming your partner.

5) Soften your language by being kind and appreciative (e.g., add in "please", "I appreciate..."). Just because you are having a conflict discussion does not mean you should be disrespectful to your partner. Show your warmth - having a ratio of 5:1 of positive to negative expressions are indicative of happier long-term relationships.

Here is a template for phrasing this: When (this happens)… I feel… (insert emotion), I need…(positive need - what you need more of). For example: "When we are spending time together and we don’t hold hands or cuddle I feel so lonely. I need affection."

Also remember to not bottle things up. Resentments can quickly flare the fans of blame and criticism, and make it easy for you to bring up a laundry list of unrelated items which will overwhelm your partner.

Express your needs and concerns as they arise with a gentle start-up, and you are much more likely to have a positive outcome for both of you.

Disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as counselling/therapy advice or used as a substitute for such. You should always speak to your own counsellor.

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