How to start a hard conversation
In a previous post, I wrote about WHY we shouldn’t avoid conflict. The logical next question is, HOW to keep a potentially explosive topic that’s been raised from escalating into an explosive argument. To that end, here we go.
Let’s begin with the way a sore subject is brought up. Dr. John Gottman uses the term “harsh startup” and “soft startup” to refer to the two ways in which we might bring up topics with our spouses. Let’s start with some examples of a harsh startup. When my husband leaves the lights on when he leaves a room, I can choose to use an exasperated tone and say, “Come on…turn the stinkin’ lights off!” I could also go with, “Is there any reason the lights are still on in this room?” The former would certainly be “harsh.” The latter, if said in a kind tone, to merely clarify, might not be as harsh as the first choice, but there might be a better, more…well, “soft” approach. I could say, “Hey honey, we should probably be more mindful of how often we leave the lights on in a room that’s not being used.” That implicates me as well and could diffuse an argument. This approach, while not for every couple, puts the solution to a possible problem in the hands of both spouses. (Or, I could simply turn the lights off and avoid saying anything at all.) Using kind words and speaking to your spouse in a way that you wouldn’t mind being spoken to is an old, but good rule to follow.
Another thing to keep in mind is this: When something needs to be brought up, it is a good idea to take the time to base what you’d like to say on the feelings you’d like to convey to your spouse without accusing him/her of being in the wrong, which will put him/her on the defense. If your spouse is on the defense, you’ve already set a bad tone for the conversation and it is incredibly unlikely that you will reach a mutual solution.
And finally (while certainly not exhausting the topic), another way of diffusing a possible conflict in the first place is to use humor. My Bob often catches me leaving the refrigerator door open. Knowing it wastes energy he clears his throat to get my attention and once he does, I look up to see him looking back and forth from the refrigerator door to me. He does this with a playful look on his face, despite the fact that I’m not doing something terribly wise at that very moment. He could berate me and use a harsh startup to bring it to my attention, but he doesn’t. He chooses to cut me some slack, be kind and respect me and my feelings (but it still gets me to shut that darn door, which is what he hoped to accomplish in the end and now I remember…at least more often, to shut it).
Ask yourself how you begin conversations with your spouse.