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Conflict Conversations: Gentle vs. Harsh Start-Ups

Disagreements within relationships are normal. Whether it’s something small like deciding on where to eat for dinner, or something more substantial like disagreeing on where to live, disagreements are bound to happen with your partner. What matters most is not that you and your partner argue, but how you argue.

One key skill to learn in relationships is how to bring up a conflict conversation to your partner. In the Gottman Method Couples Therapy model, this is called using a gentle start-up vs. a harsh start-up. Consider the following questions:

  • Do you use sarcasm to bring up an issue with your partner?

  • Do you immediately blame your partner for the problem?

  • Do you start out the conversation from a negative perspective?

  • Do you become accusatory toward your partner?

  • Do you criticize your partner?

  • Do you try and find “the bad guy”?

If you answered yes to one or more of the above questions, more than likely you are utilizing a harsh start-up when bringing up conflict conversations. According to John Gottman, statistics tell the story: 96 percent of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of a 15-minute interaction. Simply put, using a harsh-start up derails effective communication.

What exactly are harsh start-ups? Harsh start-ups begin with criticism, sarcasm, contempt, and blame. Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Wow, great shirt choice. (sarcasm) You know it’s a formal dinner right? We aren’t going to the beach.

  2. I’m constantly bringing this up to you. You never help out around here. I am always the one doing all the chores.

  3. What is your problem? I already told you several times that I don’t want to go to the party.

  4. You are so forgetful. You left the gas tank on empty. It’s all your fault I was late for work.

Harsh start-ups lead to distance within relationships. If this continues over time, you and your partner may stop communicating entirely and instead start living parallel lives. So what can you do? Work on replacing harsh start-ups with gentle start-ups. Here are some gentle start-up tips:

  • Gentle start-ups state complaints, but don’t blame their partner for the problem.

  • Gentle start-ups remember the problem is the problem, not your partner.

  • Gentle start-ups focus on what is happening, not on analyzing or judging the problem

  • Gentle start-ups are soft and polite, not harsh and demanding

  • Gentle start-ups claim part of the responsibility to contributing to the problem

  • Gentle start-ups focus on how the speaker feels and what the speaker needs

  • Gentle start-ups do not contain criticism, contempt, blame or accusations

Let’s look at a few examples of gentle start-ups:

  1. I am really overwhelmed with the amount of work on my plate today. I need you to help me by picking the kids up from school.

  2. I loved it when you came in my office and gave me a hug the other day. Can you do that more often? It really lifted me up.

  3. It seems like we haven't seen each other a lot lately. Let's plan a date. I miss you!

Can you think of a conflict you had with your partner recently? Did you use a gentle start-up or a harsh start-up? If you used a harsh start-up, think of how you can rephrase what you want, need, or prefer using a gentle start-up instead.

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