How Can Couples Communicate Better During Conflict?

How Can Couples Communicate Better During Conflict? May 25, 2023

On of the most common complaints that I hear from couples in my office, especially women, is that their partner doesn’t listen to them. For instance, Karen, age 40, has been married to Derek, age 42, for a decade and they bicker often due to poor communication skills and defensiveness on both of their parts.

Karen put it like this, “I don’t know what to do to get Derek to listen to me. We’re considering moving, and he keeps searching for homes in Florida when he knows I want to stay in New England close to my aging parents. I just want a smaller home that’s easier to clean but he wants to leave the area and won’t listen.”

How Can Couples Communicate Better During Conflict?

In a recent article for the website, Certified Gottman Couples Therapist, Kimberly Panganiban decodes one of loves greatest mysteries: when conflict arises, how can you be truly heard?

No matter whether a fight revolves around a petty concern, or has grown from something small into a screaming match, Panganiban’s strategy is grounded in a simple concept — what she calls a “gentle start up.” At its core, a gentle start up is “a way of complaining (or communicating concerns) without blame, which gives our partner the best chance of hearing it and responding without defensiveness…”

The article goes on to outline three steps that Dr. John Gottman encourages couples to practice in order to achieve a successful gentle start up. First, you should be mindful of the way and the words with which you communicate your frustration. Begin sentences with “I feel,” followed by an emotion — for example, “I feel sad” or “upset,” or “ignored.”

Then, continuing your careful style of communication follow your feeling up with a description of the object of your upset. For example, “I feel sad about the way we aren’t taking on an equal share of the household chores.” Notice in this example that the second of Dr. Gottman’s 3 steps is employed — that you “describe the situation that you are upset about, [and] do NOT describe your partner.” This kind of careful use of language can prevent your partner from feeling attacked and becoming defensive, and will enable you to foster a productive dialogue.

Finally, finish your initial statement in the conflict with an “I need.” In other words, “tell your partner what you need in clear, concrete terms. Make sure you are sharing a positive need as opposed to a negative need. This means that you share what you need to have happen versus sharing what is happening that you don’t like. Negative needs are critical by nature so they need to be avoided.”

While these three seemingly simple steps will likely yield positive results and reduce conflict in your relationship, Panganiban also acknowledges that the dynamics of a partnership are often unpredictable. She notes that “we can choose all the right words but if we are still having critical thoughts in our head, chances are that will come out in our communication with our partner in some way, such as our tone of voice. The gentle start up is most successful when you actually start thinking about things differently, not just saying them differently.”

Indeed, the gentle start up is as much about a mindset as it is a set of words. Once I explained to Karen and Derek that they could learn the skills they need to decrease defensiveness and improve their communication, they were willing to give the gentle  start up a try. And when they began listening better to each other, they came up with a compromise for moving that they could both live with.

Derek speaks, “Even though I would prefer moving to a warmer climate (like Florida), I understand that Karen wants to be near her parents who are in their mid-seventies. So we agreed that we’d downsize to a smaller house, and invest whatever funds we have left after the sale of our large home. This way we’ll have a nest egg to either spend more vacation time in Florida or buy a second home later on.”

Panganiban sums it up by saying that “the goal of the gentle start up is to actually shift your thinking from what your partner is doing wrong to how you feel and what you need… So the gentle start up is about giving ourselves the time and space to reflect on our own internal world before bringing that to our partner.”

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.

Terry’s book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.

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