I think it’s safe to say we’ve all had the experience of attempting to express how we feel to someone, like a spouse, teacher, or friend, and feeling like the words we say are misunderstood. We think we’re communicating clearly, but the person to whom we’re talking gets an entirely different message than what we intended. This is especially common in arguments, where our messages can get mixed up in strong emotions and come out as accusations or criticism of those we love.
John Gottman researched this pattern in couples in conflict, which can be accompanied by criticism or contempt. He describes this type of communication as “harsh start-up”, characterized by statements that begin with the word “you,” such as “you didn’t listen to me,” or “you always yell at me and storm off,” or “you started all of this.” By starting a conversation this way, you’re already setting your partner up to be on the defensive.
So how we can communicate more clearly and honestly? Gottman suggests using “gentle start-up,” as demonstrated in the simple formula we’ll walk through below. This formula can be used in marriage, but also in everyday conversations with friends or assertive communication with a coworker or manager. With each step below, I’ll also mention how you can begin to practice this skill on your own before using it in conversation.
Step 1: “I feel…”
Notice how this statement begins with the word “I” instead of “you.” This instantly puts less pressure on your partner to become defensive, as you are talking only about your own emotion. By naming an emotion, you are identifying how the situation or your partner’s behavior is affecting you. This also can be a vulnerable step, as sharing emotion with others invites them to empathize with you and experience greater intimacy with you as a result.
To practice: To name how a situation makes you feel, you first need to be aware of how you experience emotions in your body, as well as how to distinguish between different emotions. Spend some time checking in with your emotions daily or when you notice strong emotion arise. You can use a chart like the one here to put a word to the emotion. Pay attention to where you feel the emotion in your body: for example, anxiety can feel like knots in the stomach, sadness can feel like a slump of the shoulders, or anger can feel like a sensation of heat. If you’d like to go deeper, ask yourself: when was the first time I remember feeling this emotion? Connecting the feeling to a story from childhood can increase your awareness of why you feel that emotion.
Step 2: “because/about…”
Here, you name the situation or experience you had that contributed to the emotional response. You can name your perspective on the situation or how you interpreted events using words such as “when I saw…” or “when I heard you say…” One warning though: this step is one of the easiest to use to flip back into harsh start-up. If your sentence looks something like, “I feel angry because you’re a terrible person,” that will (obviously) cause your partner to become defensive.
To practice: As you begin to become more aware of your emotions, you’ll notice a variety of situations that trigger different emotions in you. If you’re paying attention to times in your childhood when you previously felt these emotions, you can often begin to trace patterns to your present day life where you respond in similar ways. Maybe you notice that when you felt ashamed as a child, you would retreat to your room, which is reflected today in your tendency to withdraw from your spouse when you’re feeling shame in the midst of conflict. Look at these triggers with a critical eye and practice describing your personal experience or point-of-view.
Step 3: “and what I need/want is…”
This is one of the most important and helpful pieces of the formula, as it is the first step to change. However, it can also be one of the most challenging steps to take. We often aren’t used to telling those around us what we need. Our romance-glorifying culture tells us that our spouses should know what we need without us asking. We can be hesitant to speak about our needs or desires in relationships because they put us in a vulnerable place in risk of being hurt. But this step is crucial for being able to begin to see growth in intimacy in our relationships.
When expressing this need, be sure to share it in a positive way: instead of telling your partner what you don’t want them to do, instead share what you do want. For example, instead of telling your spouse to stop pointing out your flaws, you might ask him or her to compliment you more often.
To practice: When you feel strong emotions about situations around you, slow down and ask yourself this question, “What would help me to feel better, more emotionally at peace, or more secure in this situation?” As you reflect on that question, your needs may begin to become more clear. Practice saying these needs aloud in a way that feels comfortable to you, so that you can more easily do so in conversation.
Ultimately, the goal of communicating authentically using this formula is to increase intimacy in relationships and to build solid connections with those around you.
The first few times you use this formula can feel scary or awkward. But as you practice and speak more openly about your emotions and experiences, you’ll notice this formula integrating itself into your daily conversations, and I believe you’ll find yourself connecting more authentically and intimately by offering your true self to others.
Have you experienced difficulty in communicating in your marriage? Have you found yourself at a standstill in your arguments, completely gridlocked and moving nowhere? Are you running low on hope that things will change? Here at Restored Hope, I want to help you break through those blocks to communication in your marriage and relationships, experiencing genuine connection with those you love. Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based therapy clinic where I use Gottman Method Couples Therapy to encourage healthy, whole relationships. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me today.