None of us want to be fighting with our loved ones. We have a long list of things we’d much rather be doing, yet once we get sucked into an argument, it can take hours (or weeks?) to get out.
There is surprising new information available from top relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman. After a 30 year-long study following newlywed couples into old-age, we now have a scientifically proven formula that really works. It has kept couples happily married well into old age. They didn’t even know how they were doing it, but thankfully, the research team was able to observe what they were doing and create a 4 step blueprint for the rest of us.
All Couples Argue
The point of this article is to learn how to avoid as many fights as you can by paying attention to how you start the conversation.
We have conversations to solve problems and make decisions, not to hurt one another’s feelings. Once a fight starts, it’s hard to remember this goal, and we become cavemen.
“He hit me over the head with a club so I am now going to hit him over the head with a club.”
Here is the alternative.
The secret to avoiding a fight is to start the conversation in a non-critical way.
96% of the time, you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the interaction (Gottman, 2014)
The reason communication skills training has failed in the past is because it has been focused primarily on listening skills. This was a fatal flaw.
People were encouraged to talk openly and honestly about their feelings without editing themselves. The idea was that if both people could “vent” their resentments and disappointments, the steam would be let out and everyone would feel better. It took a while for someone to actually test this idea. As it turns out, the research showed that expressing resentments increased rather than decreased resentment.
Happy couples have been using this formula for decades without even knowing they are doing it. Now the psychology community is slowly catching up. Here is the break-down of exactly what they do.
John Gottman’s four-step Gentle Startup: the antidote to criticism*
When you tell someone there is something fundamentally wrong with who they are a person, they will likely get defensive.
Here is what to say instead:
I feel ________about___________. I appreciate ________ and need or request __________.
Here is how to fill in the blanks to get the best results.
Step 1. I feel ________
Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You” to avoid blame.
Do this: I feel very nervous and abandoned when I’m home alone not knowing where my family is.
Not this: You’re always late for dinner and you never think about anyone but yourself.
Step2. …about _____________
Describe what is happening objectively and non-judgmentally. Don’t offer your evaluation of what you think is going on for the other person
Do this: I’m the only one in the house and it’s 6:30, the time we usually have dinner.
Not this: You are selfish and careless, so wrapped up in your own world that it doesn’t even matter to you what time you come home…it could be midnight as far as you’re concerned.
Step 3. I appreciate ________________
Give appreciations. Noticing what people are doing right is always the best way to go. Take the time to search your brain for a time when the person did or is doing something right related to this issue
Do this: I know how hard they’ve been pushing you at work and I really appreciate all you put up with to provide for the family.
Not this: You don’t get a gold star for having a job.
Step 4. I need (or request) ___________________
Talk clearly about what you need in positive terms. Express what you want specifically and explicitly, clarifying what you do want rather than what you don’t want
Do this: I’d really appreciate it if you could try to remember to call me by 5:00 to let me know what time you’ll be home
Not this: I do not want to be married to someone who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to leave me home alone waiting while dinner gets cold without even a phone call
Put it all together and it sounds like this:
I feel very nervous and abandoned when I’m home alone not knowing where my family is. I’m the only one in the house and it’s 6:30, the time we usually have dinner. I know how hard they’ve been pushing you at work and I really appreciate all you put up with to provide for the family. I’d really appreciate it if you could try to remember to call me by 5:00 to let me know what time you’ll be home.
Remember to be polite. Treat the person you are talking to as someone worthy of basic manners, using phrases such as “please” and “I would appreciate it if…” Challenge your belief that this person “always or never” does the thing in question.
Here are some other examples that can show you how to tailor this formula into your own words. It works with children and bosses too:
I feel frustrated when I see the caulking in the bathroom hasn’t been finished yet. I know you have a bunch of projects on your to-do list and it’s a really messy, annoying job. I need to come up with a plan for when and how it is going to be finished.
(to a child) Buddy, that drumming on the table is giving me a headache, I know it’s fun to whack things with spoons but can you do it in the playroom, please?
I was a little annoyed that there wasn’t any milk for my coffee this morning. I know how fast it disappears in our house. Can you please text me when you finish the milk so I can pick it up on my way home from work?
5 Common Mistakes You Might Be Making While Using this Formula
1. Don’t sound like a robot. Remember it is called “gentle startup” for a reason. Find the softness in your voice, show it on your face and maybe grab a hand or rub a shoulder if appropriate. If there has been a lot of fighting between you, neutrality can be interpreted as sarcasm even if you don’t mean it to be.
2. Do not pause after step 2, or your partner will jump in and respond before you get a chance to express your appreciations which are the most important part of this formula.
3. Nasty prepositions: As soon as we say I feel like…, or I feel as if…, I feel that…, we are no longer talking about our feelings. We pretend we are talking about our feelings when they are actually opinions or judgments.
4. Don’t go global. People respond better to a discussion about a single episode than to a personality critique. “I’m worried that you are an alcoholic.” will be harder to hear than “I was really worried about you last night when I saw how sick you were from drinking…”
5. Edit all caveats. “I appreciate that you’re a great dad” is perfect with a period at the end of the sentence. The appreciation becomes lost if you say, “I appreciate that you’re a great dad when you’re actually home”.
The Four Predictors of Divorce
Congratulations on your commitment to improving your communication skills by reading this article. According to Dr. John Gottman’s research, criticism is one of the four predictors of divorce and relationship unhappiness, so mastering this formula could significantly impact your life.
The other 3 are Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt. Improving these 4 core communication skills will help you manage your conflict effectively so that you spend less time arguing and more time having fun!.
Thanks for reading my article,
All of the advice and research referenced in this article is based on the evidence-based Gottman Method of Couples Therapy which is grounded in 40 years of researching over 3,000 couples.
Originally published for Writers Blokke on Medium