A wife is sitting on the couch as her husband walks in the front door after being at the golf course all day. Before he can speak, she says, “You are always golfing with your friends! I’ve been home alone all day, and you didn’t call once.” Naturally, the husband feels attacked — even though he knows she’s right — and an argument ensues. Sound familiar? Of course it does. But is there a better way of handling this? Absolutely. It’s a little something called soft start vs. harsh start.
Soft start vs. harsh start are two ways to go about getting your point across when you’re upset. But only one will get your point across AND lead to a much healthier conversation with your spouse.
State the real need — use positive needs rather than negative ones
Harsh Start ends with a Harsh Finish
We’re not telling you anything that you don’t already know — most difficult discussions between a husband and wife begin with some sort of harsh start. It’s direct and certainly achieves your objective to let that person know how you’re feeling at that moment. But a harsh start is also bound to result in a harsh finish. And this leads to all sorts of negative emotions and reactions, from anger and shouting to hurtful words, aggressiveness, resentment, and even flooding.
A harsh start sounds like this:
- “You never take out the trash when I ask you to!”
- “You said you would pay that bill today, and it’s almost after 5 p.m.”
- “The kids and I have been waiting all day for you to stop working.”
None of these examples explain the real need. Furthermore, if you start a conversation with an attack, you will almost certainly get a negative response in return. And … well … we all know what happens next.
If you want to have a positive conversation every time, use a soft start!
It is possible to complain but not blame?
This is called a soft start, and it sounds like this:
- “Honey, the trash you were going to take out, would you mind taking it out now?”
- “Hey, babe. It’s almost 5 p.m. Can you please pay that bill so that we don’t get another late fee?”
- “The kids and I were really looking forward to spending time with you today. Can you stop working?”
- “Could we please talk about something that’s been bothering me?”
Do you see how these last examples are much softer and put more emphasis on the need? They still get the point across without attacking, criticizing, blaming, or judging. Using a soft start vs. harsh start is more positive and increases the likelihood that your partner will jump at the chance to rectify the situation.
Read more about soft start vs. harsh start from the Gottman Institute.
How should I respond to my spouse’s soft start?
Now that one spouse is using a softer and gentler opening, how can the offending spouse respond appropriately? According to Gottman, there are very simple keys to having great conversations that don’t escalate and go sour in a heartbeat.
The key is to respond and validate
Don’t give your thoughts, opinion, or advice. Acknowledge what they say.
- Show you care
- Attempt to understand
- Find a solution that works
If you do, your partner will feel validated and understood, and they will feel cared for and less defensive.
Them: “You are always golfing with your friends! I’ve been home alone all day, and you didn’t call once.”
You: “I’m so sorry that not calling hurt your feelings. I left my phone in the car, and I shouldn’t have.”
Them: “The kids and I have been waiting all day for you to stop working.”
You: “I can see why you feel that way. I just got focused on getting this project done. Let’s go right now.”
All we are saying here is that there’s a better way to handle difficult conversations and interactions than leaping straight to a negative. Disputes can be dealt with and managed through understanding, cooperation, and persuasion. Furthermore, it is in you and your spouse’s best interest to slow things down, try not to escalate the situation by saying the wrong thing, and show that you’re willing to cooperate when you do mess up. A soft start is typically always better than a harsh start!
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Our heart is devoted to caring about people. We want to ensure you have the tools to communicate better in your marriage. The best way we know how to do that is by spreading the word to more people and let them know that we are here.
Did we leave anything out? What are some ways you might try to have a soft start in conversations with your spouse? Please send us a quick email and help us keep this conversation going. mike@MikeandSusanDawson.com.