Consider this interaction where a couple is already in the heat of an intense argument:
Mike was approached by his brother, Danny, about a financial loan. Mike’s wife, Rose, was firmly opposed to the loan because they had given Danny money on five separate occasions and Danny had no way of repaying them, as he had recently lost his job.
“Danny asked me for a small allowance just to get him through the week,” said Mike, tentatively opening the conversation.
“No way!” replied Rose, turning her attention from the dinner she was preparing. “We’re barely covering our own bills this month. We can’t afford to pay his bills too. I won’t allow it!”
Mike was irritated. “You won’t allow it? Why do you get to make the decision? I make more money, so I should decide if we make the loan or not.”
“Really? What about my contribution? Doesn’t that count? You think you can do whatever you want because you bring home more money! You may act like a big shot, but it’s not going to happen!” Rose slammed down the cup she was holding and turned away, ending the discussion.
At this point there is no chance of the couple communicating effectively. Both are on the defensive; their negative emotions have been triggered. It would be nearly impossible for them to detach from the heat of the moment and make a U-turn. Humans simply aren’t wired that way. They are in fight or flight mode.
In this situation, there is no prospect for a better outcome. Each time they visit this tense subject both Mike and Rose will become hostile, because each feels that their point of view is ignored by the other. How can they change the course of their interactions to avoid the same result every time the subject arises? How can they recover this missed opportunity?
One of the first things to consider is timing. It is extremely important to choose the right moment. In this case, Mike did not choose a good moment. It was the end of the work day, everyone was tired, and Rose was distracted with preparing dinner. It would have been better for Mike to postpone the discussion until after dinner. By then, they would have had the chance to relax a bit and unwind. Rose would be able to give her full attention to the discussion instead of being annoyed by Mike’s interruption.
It may seem obvious, but sometimes we react in very primitive ways as a result of our emotional state. If Rose had a rough day at the office, Mike could have innocently asked, “How was your day?” and Rose may have exploded with, “Why do you want to know? Is there something wrong with me?” Rose is reacting to events that Mike knows nothing about. Now Mike is offended by her response to his harmless question. Instead of reacting in kind, it would be wise of Mike to show some sensitivity, and invite Rose to talk about her day. Once she unloads the stress she will be much more relaxed, and much less likely to react with hostility when Mike wants to talk about Danny.
A second skill to employ when beginning a difficult conversation is the “soft start-up”. This technique is about showing empathy and respect for a partner’s opinion, and asking them for help in a situation rather than being defensive about it. After interviewing thousands of couples in his marriage lab, Dr. John Gottman, a marriage psychologist, was able to predict in the first five minutes whether couples would stay together or divorce. He found that when couples used this approach not only was it effective in overcoming communication barriers, but that it also predicted the longevity of the relationship. Couples that practiced the soft start-up felt heard and respected, and were more willing to solve common problems together.
It’s important to note that the soft start-up should not be used for every conversation. It’s a good habit to build for conversations where there is difficulty being understood, or where negative emotions block an open discussion, threatening to become an all-out fight.
Here is what to do next:
Think about your relationship for a moment then answer these questions:
- Name two bad times to initiate a conversation about a difficult subject.
- My partner would be most open to discussing a touchy subject when…
If you are fighting about the same problem most of the time, a simple tool therefore, is to consider the context of the problem. Set some time aside to discuss the challenges where you feel safe, and work with your partner to solve the problem rather than only getting your way or your partner getting their way.