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How To Start Better Conversations With Your Partner

Talking about difficult issues and attempting to find a solutions is inevitable situation in any relationship. Often, you don't want talk “about it” because of the fear of the whole conversation “going wrong” and ending up with the usual arguments and unpleasant feelings.

John Gottman, a leading researcher in the field of relationships, states: “discussions inevitably end on the same note they begin”. He aruges you can set a stage for how the rest of your conversation will go. This means a great start to any dialogue is crucial.

Your two choices when beginning a conversation

1) To start our conversation with criticism.

2) To start gently and respectfully.

For most us, by the time we bring up a difficulat topic to talk about with our partners, we usually are already frustrated and angry. So, the first thing to learn hear is this; we need to bring up important issues earlier. If you leave things to fester, it's likely you'll start the conversation by blaming and criticizing your partner.

Instead, you can attempt to significantly increase your odds of being heard and understood by trying something different: using a soft startup.

Your goal is to bring up a topic and make your point in a way that your partner will hear you the way you want to be heard. Harsh startups rarely lead to satisfying conversations. On the other hand, a softened startup does not guarantee, but fairly improves the chances of the dialogue going well.

Here are some guidelines for a softened converation startup:

  • Complain, but not blame!

The complaint should be about a particular situation rather than your partner’s personality or character. It is about your feelings, how you perceive things, presenting them as your perceptions, rather than an absolute truth.

Better to say: “I don’t like it when we agreed you take away the garbage today, and I come home, and it is still in the kitchen. I am really upset about this.”

Rather than: “You are always promising me to do something and never do it. I should never trust you. You are irresponsible and lazy!”

  • Make your statements to start with “I” instead of “You”.

When you start with “I” instead of “You”, your statement is much less likely to be heard as critical and make your partner defensive.

Instead of saying: “You are not listening to me.”

You are better to say: “I would like it if you’d listen to me”.

Here's another suggestion; say what you want to happen, rather than what you don’t want to happen. For example, “I think you are selfish” is not a gentle “I”-statement.

  • Describe what is happening, rather than evaluate or judge.

Just describe what you see happening. Instead of saying: "You never help me with driving our kids to school”, say: “I seem to be the only one who drives our kids to school and I would like to talk about it.”

  • Be clear.

Remember that no matter how long you've been living together, your partner will never be able to read your mind. Therefore, if you want something, you need to express it directly, clearly and be specific.

Instead of saying: “You left a living room a total mess after watching TV yesterday night”, say: “I would like it if you clean the stuff you left in the living room yesterday.”

  • Be polite.

When making your requests politely, add “please” and “I would appreciate it if …” Politeness can go a long way and it is contagious!

  • Be appreciative.

You can express appreciation for the times when your partner was doing what you wanted, if at some point in the past it was true. You could say: “I really liked it when we used to go out every Saturday night! I loved spending so much time together with you! I would really like to start doing that again…”

  • And it is better to not store things up.

Don't wait too long to bring up an issue! When you accumulate your dissatisfaction, anger, complaints, resentment, etc., talking about all of the issues at once will have a higher chance of sounding harsh and critical. It is much better to address issues in your relationship as soon as they arise, and not wait for “the right time to talk”.

Here is the softened startup formula suggested by John Gottman:


“I feel______________________.”

“And I need (or would appreciate)___________________.”

“When” describes the situation, event or circumstance. It is stated objectively without blame or accusations.

“I feel” describes the emotions one experiences or experienced in the situation. State emotions and feelings clearly and resist the urge to launch into criticism.

“And I need” describes what would remedy the situation. Softened startups are designed to help the speaker express their needs, wants, desires. Using a softened startup does not mean that one stuffs, ignores or minimizes their needs, but provides a way to express them clearly and respectfully.

A softened startup is a good way to start a better conversation for any couple!

Wishing all partners happy sharing and connecting with each other,

Sveltana is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Relationship Specialist at Vida Relationships who is accepting new clients for couples and individual counselling in Vancouver, BC. Contact her here to book and appointment.

Source: “The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically –Based Marital Therapy” by John Gottman, PhD.

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