How to Start a Difficult Conversation

Chris Lanterman, Licensed Professional Counselor on Nov 11, 2022 in Relationship and Family

I hear it in my office with couples frequently — “I don’t know how to start talking about difficult topics with my partner.” Many struggle with how to break the ice. Many more do not feel heard by their partners when they try to bridge the gap. I often hear “We don’t know how to talk about this without getting into an ugly argument,” “We just can’t seem to talk about much anymore,” and “I am afraid to start a conversation with him/her/them.” What a lonely place to be. We all need a sense of connection by feeling seen and heard. So how do we talk in a way that we will be listened to?

Relationship experts John and Julie Gottman discovered that 94% of the time, the way a conversation starts determines how it will end. If a conversation starts with criticism and contempt, it’s likely to end with both parties feeling more alone and hurt. If a conversation starts with a vulnerable description of one’s personal experience about a particular situation, it will likely end with connection and a sense of being heard. Bonus points if that conversation includes a specific, positive need request. That gives our partners a clear understanding of how they best can meet our needs.

That all sounds nice, but how do we do that? Fortunately, John and Julie Gottman have identified six specific skills and developed a gentle start-up formula to do just that. Here is how it works…

Skill #1: Complain But Don’t Blame

No matter how at fault we feel our partners are, approaching them with criticism and accusations will likely not help us get our needs met.

Blaming and criticism can also be communicated through non-verbal communication (eye rolling, scoffing, etc.).

Blaming: “You said you would clean the backyard today, and it’s still a mess.”

Complaint: “I am feeling upset that the leaves in the gutter and the yard have not been cleaned up. I would really appreciate it if you would take care of the leaves this weekend.”

Skill #2: Use “I” Statements Instead of “You”

When we start statements with “I,” we are less likely to be critical of our partners (pushing them away) and more likely to invite them to see our needs.

“You” Statement: “You are not listening to me.”

“I” Statement: “I do not feel heard right now.”

Skill #3: Describe What is Happening Without Evaluating or Judging

Instead of blaming our partners, describe the situation as we see it and experience it.

Avoid using statements with “always” and “never.”

Judging: “You’re always so careless with money.”

Describing: “I am feeling stressed about finances. Our budget this month is tight. I would feel much better if we cut back on eating out this week.”

Skill #4: Be Polite & Appreciative

Being in conflict with our partners does not mean respect and affection needs to diminish.

Use phrases such as “please” and “I would appreciate it.”

When in conflict, try to keep the ratio of positive to negative 5:1.

Skill #5: Express Your Positive Need

Unfortunately, it often comes easier for us to indicate what is not getting done as opposed to what we would like to happen.

Expressing a positive need in a situation will inform our partners how best they can help meet our needs.

Negative description: “You never help take care of the baby.”

Positive need: “Would you please take turns with me changing diapers and doing the bedtime routine?"

Skill #6: Don’t Store Things Up

When a partner stores all their complaints and dumps them at one time, we call this stacking.

Stacking leaves the receiving partner feeling overwhelmed, demoralized, and often unable to respond to any need requests.

Use gentle start-ups as frustrations and problems arise instead of stuffing them down and bringing them all up when feelings are flooded with negativity.

Gentle Start-up Formula:

I feel __________________________________________

about (specific situation not a “who”) _______________________________________.

I need _________________________________________.

Chris Lanterman is a Counselor in Westwood, KS.

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