In the intricate dance of relationship, communication often serves as the melody that influences the steps taken by both partners. In this intricate exchange, both partners want the other person to respond to them in a way that makes them feel seen and considered.
However, we often unknowingly do things that disrupt the dance and leave us, and our partner, out of step with each other and frustrated. This doesn't have to be the case. Just as in dancing, partners need to be mindful that their movements influence the movements of their partner. Therefore, each dancer should consider the steps they take, the rhythm they generate, and the harmony they aim to achieve. This can be done by using what Dr. John Gottman calls a "softened start-up."
The Soft Start-up
Be gentle and polite
The first step in a soft start-up is to be gentle. I appreciate the wisdom in the Proverb, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1, NIV). Dr. Gottman's research reveals that that the way a conversation begins has a profound impact on its trajectory, influencing the course of the conversation 94% of the time.
When expressing requests and communicating needs, employing a gentle and polite approach fosters a respectful atmosphere. People are generally more willing to listen when they feel valued and respected.
Use "I" statements.
"I" statements help the speaker focus on their own feelings, thoughts, and wants, steering clear of criticism and blame directed at the other person. Criticism and blaming triggers defensiveness in the listener, who then stops listening and starts formulating their response against the perceived attack.
Most of the couples that I work with are familiar with the recommendation to use "I" statements instead of "you" statements, but they often struggle with implementation. During the initial stages of therapy, it's common for them to inadvertently transform "I" statements into veiled "you" statements.
Consider the statement, "I felt hurt because all you think about is yourself and what you want" - this is essentially a "you" statement disguised as an "I" statement. A genuine "I" statement, on the other hand, might be framed as, "I felt hurt because it didn't seem like my feelings were being considered. It would mean a lot to me to know that I'm important." Although making this shift can be challenging initially, with continued practice, it becomes increasingly natural.
Clearly state a positive need
Stating a positive need involves turning a complaint into a statement of what you want. Rather than framing your request in terms of what you don't want or what is lacking, focus on voicing your preferences, dreams, or the positive changes you would like to see. This approach sets the tone for a more collaborative and solution-focused, instead of problem-focused, conversation.
A complaint such as, "I hate it that we are late all the time," can be turned into, "Punctuality is really important to me. It would mean a lot for us to work together to be on time for our appointments."
Like dancing, communication is an art that deepens with practice and attunement. It involves a delicate balance of giving and receiving, responding to cues, and adapting to the ever-changing dynamics of the conversation. As we approach with gentleness, chose our approach wisely, and express positive needs, we can foster connections that are as graceful and resonant as a well-choreographed dance.