Jim and Amy have been together for 8 years and finally came to a breaking point. They wanted to get help with their communication; it seemed that any time they talked about an important topic, it turns into an argument. It was very frustrating for each person, and they simply didn't know what to do. Eventually, they just started to avoid talking to each other since it didn't seem to make any difference. When they did try to "talk", Jim or Amy would angrily bring up their concern. And the conversation would take off from there, with both putting up their defenses and taking shots at the other. A huge reason for why these conversations went the same way each time is because of one factor: harsh startup.
John Gottman identifies a harsh startup as the first sign of a couple that is unsatisfied, or even headed for divorce. A startup is simply how one person begins a conversation; a harsh startup is starting with sarcasm, criticism, or countless other ways that we communicate provocatively. A soft startup is approaching the other person in a way that will get your concern across, but will not make the other person feel attacked or criticized. Tone of voice is important for a soft startup, but it isn't everything. Amy could use a soft tone, but her words could create a critical message which would lead Jim to get defensive.
Example of a harsh startup:
Jim: "I come home from work every day and you don't say anything to me. You're always so cold, and you used to be happy to see me. I hate it!"
Amy: "Yeah probably because when you come home you're so grumpy. Why would I want to be close to that?!"
Clearly this didn't work for the couple. Jim tried to bring up a concern, but his message was filled with criticism and intensity. This only made Amy feel attacked, and led her to shoot right back.
Example of a soft startup:
Jim: "Hey Amy. It feels like there's some distance between us when I first get home. Is there something we can do to make it more like before? When we were both happy to see each other when we got home."
Amy: "I've noticed that too. A lot of times it seems like you're on edge when you get home which makes me a little anxious."
This way sets the two up for having a much more productive conversation, and coming closer to a solution. They obviously need to continue to use effective communication skills to keep it on track; the soft startup has set them on the right foot.
As you can see, the soft startup took away the criticism and intensity, and replaced it with a genuine curiosity of how to improve their interactions when Jim gets home. It shifted it from a message of an attack, to effectively bringing up a concern that both are responsible for.
Try to use the soft startup as much as possible. Next time you're angry and plan on talking to your partner, don't start the conversation by criticizing and putting the problem on your partner. Instead, take a deep breath; think about what you want to say; determine if this would be a harsh or soft startup. Then make the conscious choice to take the route of the softest startup and pave the path for a productive conversation.