How To Have A Difficult Conversation Without Fighting

Do you feel like every time you bring something up with your spouse it turns into an argument?  It may even be something simple but before you know it, you are both feeling defensive and one or both of you is storming out of the room.  You are both feeling angry and wounded by all the past issues that just got thrown into the conversation and once again you commit to saying nothing at all as opposed to dealing with the fights anymore.  This is a very typical pattern in marriages and often, we have seen this pattern of communicating modeled for us in other relationships.  Perhaps this is how your parents discussed issues or maybe this is even how you talked to your siblings growing up.  Regardless of where this habit comes from, it’s critical to learn a new way of communicating with your partner.

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One of the most helpful things to do is called “soft start-up” which is a method of bringing up issues designed by Dr. John Gottman.  Dr. Gottman points out that the first three minutes of any conversation determines how the rest of the interaction goes.  Once a conversation goes off rails, it is nearly impossible to right it again.  That’s why it is imperative you begin difficult conversations gently. For example, let’s assume your mother-in-law is coming to visit for the holidays.  You have never been able to get along and you are really dreading her visit.  She has asked to stay two weeks and you know you will never endure her for that long without screaming.  You want to discuss this with your spouse but every time you’ve tried in the past it has led to a knockdown, drag out fight.  Below are two ways you can talk to your spouse about this problem. Which is more likely to lead to a productive conversation?

a)     “You know your mother absolutely hates me.  She is the most annoying, self-centered person I have ever met.  She is a lousy excuse for a mother and if she is staying for two weeks then you better believe I won’t be – I’ll go out of town for work or something but no way am I staying in the same house with that witch for so long.”

b)     “Honey, you know your mother and I sometimes have a hard time getting along.  I know you are really looking forward to her visit and I think I would have a better chance at enjoying her time with us if she wasn’t staying quite that long.  Do you think a week-long visit would be good enough?  I’m afraid if the visit is much longer she and I may have a hard time enjoying each other’s company.  What do you think?”

In both scenarios you are able to get the same point across which is: you would prefer your mother-in-law come for a shorter visit.  In the first example, no filters are used and more than likely your spouse is going to feel incredibly defensive and protective of his/her mother.   Instead of your spouse being able to understand your feelings, you will become the bad guy and the conversation will likely spiral downward into an argument.  The second example utilizes “soft start-up”.  You convey your point in a calm and gentle manner.  It is much more likely that the second statement will be met with understanding by your spouse because he/she will not feel the need to jump to their mother’s defense.

Soft start-up gets much easier if you remember some basic rules.

  1. Keep it simple. State the issue calmly and briefly.  Going on and on about it will annoy your partner.
  2. Don’t be critical.  You can state the situation and how you feel about it without attacking someone’s personality or character.
  3. Keep it positive.  Instead of saying you don’t want your mother-in-law to come at all, you are offering a compromise that focuses on something positive…that you want to enjoy the visit more as well.
  4. Describe, don’t judge. Instead of accusing or blaming, simply describe what you see happening. Your observation is that you and your mother-in-law don’t always get along.  You aren’t blaming anyone.  You are stating the problem without judgment.
  5. Talk clearly about what you need. Don’t expect your partner to read your mind. Be direct and say what you need. Compromise is your friend!
  6. Be polite. Politeness goes a long way in a relationship. And, it’s catching. Please and thank you are powerful words.

    Go ahead…give it a shot.  Try utilizing “soft start-up” this week with your spouse and see if this changes the tone of your conversations.  If you and your partner are stuck and fighting over the same issues, call us at Power of Two Counseling.  We can help you navigate through the conflict so everyone wins!

By Lauren Guenther

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