What’s your typical view on conflict? Most of us either run away in avoidance or approach it head-on with fighting words.
But did you know it’s actually very healthy to engage in conflict? At least, it is when you know the best way to approach it.
A soft startup can help you view conflict as a productive way to meet your needs, rather than the beginning of a dreadful argument.
A soft startup is exactly what it sounds like – a way to gently and softly approach conflict. Instead of entering conflict with aggression, soft startup allows you and your spouse to have a more constructive conversation.
Rules of a soft startup:
- Complain but don’t blame
This first step in conflict resolution is crucial because it will dictate the entirety of your conversation. Complaining is okay, but blaming is not, even if you think your significant other deserves it. Blame can come across as a personal attack on your partner’s character, which they will not be receptive to. For example, if you head downstairs and see the sink is still full of dirty dishes, it may be tempting to say “You NEVER do the dishes when I ask! The sink looks disgusting.”
Try instead, in a regulated tone of voice, “I noticed the dishes are still in the sink. I thought we agreed they would be done before I got home.” See how much kinder that sounds?
It’s also important to remember that actions speak louder than words. A soft startup will only work if it’s accompanied by congruent behaviors – don’t roll your eyes, or raise your voice while attempting to have a productive conversation.
- Use “I” instead of “you” statements
“I” statements will sound a lot less accusatory than “you” statements and will ensure your partner doesn’t immediately put their defenses up. “You” statements will come across as an attack on your partner’s character, causing your partner to put their guard up, and rightfully so.
How do you usually broach conflict management with your spouse? Do you say, “You always try to cut the conversation short when we’re arguing,” or “I feel unheard when you walk away in the middle of an argument?” The former statement is a common mistake and it’s a critical statement, so try reframing it, as in the latter example, to better manage conflict with your partner. Talking about your own feelings and emotions is much easier for your partner to hear and to respond to in a non-defensive way.
- Describe the situation without judgment or evaluation
Simple as that – describe the situation at hand instead of inserting your perceived judgment or evaluation of it. When you state the problem at face value, for what it is, there’s less room for your partner to feel judged. In fact, it can even help them see the problem from your point of view.
- Discuss your needs clearly and positively
Explicitly discussing your wants and needs will leave no room for the imagination. Unfortunately, nobody is a mind reader, but when you’re completely open, you’ll increase your chances of getting your needs met. Instead of dwelling on the fact that they still haven’t been met, express your wishes and desires for them to be met. Again, remember to use “I” statements and talk about what you would like to have happen, and avoid talking about the ways your needs are not being met.
- Be Polite
It’s true that conflict doesn’t have a positive connotation, but that’s not an excuse for approaching the situation with a rude or negative demeanor. Using your basic manners by saying, “please,” and “thank you,” will go a long way in a productive conflict discussion.
- Show appreciation
The research of couples counseling expert, Dr. John Gottman, shows that even in conflict, couples need to keep their interaction at a positive to negative ratio of 5:1. That’s five positives to one negative during the hard conversations. While that may not sound like what a typical conflict with your partner is like, keep in mind that you can find positives during conflict and it’s important to express the positives. Validating your partner’s feelings and emotions (“I can see this is really upsetting to you.”), using “please” and “thank you” as mentioned above, and expressing appreciation to your partner for staying engaged in the conversation with you (“I know this is a difficult conversation for us both, and I appreciate you listening to what is happening for me in all of this.”), are just a few examples of ways you can show appreciation during conflict and maintain the 5:1 positive to negative ratio.
A soft startup is a fairly easy concept not only to grasp, but to practice as well. If done right and your spouse is receptive, it will make your conflict resolution process a lot smoother. This will be good in the long run for your relationship, and your personal well-being, too.
Carlene Lehmann is a licensed marriage and family therapist associate at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin). She works with couples to help them improve communication and connection in their relationships. Call Carlene at 512-270-4883, ext. 105 to schedule an appointment with her, or go to RCC Austin's Scheduling Page and request her as your counselor.