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Why Do We Argue About Small, "Stupid" Things?

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

In a potentially conflictual conversation in a relationship, there are so many ways that it can go off the rails, which is why so many couples have trouble with it. One part of a conversation that has a huge impact is the startup – how one person begins a conversation. A harsh startup, a phrase coined by John Gottman, is – as he puts it - the first sign of a couple that is unsatisfied, or even headed for divorce.

What does a harsh startup sound like? It's an aggressive or confrontational tone, starts with sarcasm, criticism, or contempt, and includes very shut down or volatile body language among a number of other ways we can start off on the wrong foot. Another way to tell if it's harsh is if there's exaggerated language – specifically using words like always, never, or constantly.

A soft startup is approaching the other person in a way that will get your concern across, but will (hopefully) not make the other person feel attacked or criticized. There are a lot of ways you can make your startup more soft, with tone being one of the most important.

Example of a harsh startup:

Jim: "I come home from work every day and you don't say anything to me. You don't even stop what you're doing to greet me, it's ridiculous."

Amy: "Yeah probably because when you come home you're in such a bad mood. Why would I want to be close to that?!"

Clearly this way of starting a conversation didn't work for either person. 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 distance between us when I first get home and it's been difficult for me to deal with. I was hoping we could talk about that, and if there's anything we can do differently."

Amy: "Yeah, I've noticed that too, and we can definitely talk about it. What's been difficult for you to deal with?"

A soft startup sets the two up for having a much more productive conversation, and coming closer together. You will need to continue to use effective communication skills to keep the conversation on track; the soft startup starts us off on the right foot, and we need to keep things there throughout.

So how exactly is the soft startup different? For one, there isn't criticism and intensity – instead, there is a vulnerable sharing of Jim's emotions and what he would like out of the conversation. And in response, Amy makes it clear that she's open to talking about it, and asks him about his feeling.

For some, this feels like they're stuffing down their emotions, or not being authentic. To clarify, a soft startup is not stuffing down emotions, it's expressing them in a way that is likely to lead to a helpful conversation. If you yell at your partner that might feel more genuine in that moment, but it will rarely lead to a productive dialogue. It shifts from an attack, to a collaborative conversation where both are against the problem, instead of against each other.

Here are some practical tips that can make this process a little bit easier:

Ask if they can talk at that moment – this can automatically set a collaborative tone because you're not just diving into a lecture, you're seeing if they're at a place where they're open to talk

Talk with a calm tone – focusing on your tone can be immensely helpful because that's one of the most common triggers that we have: our partner expressing themselves with a harsh tone

Avoid the "Four Horsemen," as John Gottman puts it. These are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling

Try to open up yourself to the other person and sharing to share, not to build a case for why you're right. Share your perspective so that they can hear you and take it in

If you feel frustrated or upset, take time away from each other (at least 20 minutes). When we're emotionally flooded it's almost impossible to have a productive conversation, so taking time apart to regulate our emotions can often be the best route to take

Remember that you want to work through it together, not against each other. This (along with all the other tips) is easier said than done, but can still be helpful in those moments to ground ourselves.

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 blame on your partner. Instead, take a deep breath; think about what you want to say; ask yourself, will this be a soft startup? Will my partner respond well? Then make the conscious choice to take the route of the softest startup and hopefully it turns into a productive conversation where you both feel much better coming out of it than you did going into it.

Check out my video for more:

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