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Fighting fair: Soften your start-up

November 8, 2011

Last week we talked about the eight ground rules for fighting fair and first on the list was Soften Your Start-up. You’re probably wondering what the heck is a start-up?! And how in the world do I soften it?! I agree, it sounds a bit odd. But it’s simple, really. A start-up is how you begin a conversation–and it can either be harsh sounding or, the opposite, soft. The general rule goes like this: How you start a conversation is how you will end it. So if you start by attacking your partner {harsh} then you will likely end with as much, or more, tension as you began. The goal is to start things off softly.

I know what you’re thinking–I thought this series was about fighting fair and now you’re telling me that I have to start all conversations softly? That’s not really an argument then. I completely agree. While I believe it’s better to have a conversation about a disagreement rather than an argument, I also 100% believe that diplomatic conversation isn’t always possible. But that’s not necessarily what I’m talking about here. A soft start-up doesn’t have to be devoid of complaint or even emotion. It just needs to be without criticism and accusation.

Imagine your partner is upset about something. Say it was your turn to clean the dishes and you forgot. What if your partner brought up the issue like this:

Once again, you left the dishes for me to clean. Seriously, why do I always have to do everything for you? You’re such a slob!

What would your response be? My guess is that you would react with defensiveness, potentially criticize back, or just walk away. None of which are good for your relationship. Imagine another possibility:

Hey, you forgot to do the dishes. It really upsets me when I feel like I have to do your share as well as mine. How can we figure out a system so you can remember better?

It’s a little softer, right? There’s a clear complaint but there isn’t any criticism or accusation involved. And additionally, there’s a request to work together to solve the problem. Chances are you would respond in a more favorable way as well.

I said this before and I will continue to say it as we go through this series: These are ground rules. Ideally, you would follow them all the time and never have big blow-outs, sleep on the couch, or go to counseling. But we all live in the real world. Sometimes there’s no way you can start a conversation softly. Sometimes you’re so angry you can’t take a step back to calm down before approaching your partner. And sometimes you’ll begin with a soft start-up {good job!} but your significant other will imagine you were attacking him/her and respond harshly {soft start-up FAIL}. It happens. That’s why these are guidelines. And that’s why there are eight of them–including repair {reconnecting after one of those big blow-outs}.

So, what are your thoughts on the soft start-up? What, for you, makes it difficult to begin a conversation softly? Let’s discuss!


John  Gottman writes a lot about soft start-ups. Read The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work for more.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2011 10:53 am

    I tried this last night and it worked and it was awesome!

    One thing that helps me start up softly is to remember than when Zach does something I don’t like, it isn’t maliciously. When I remember his character I remember that he would never do something hurtful on purpose, just by accident or maybe when he’s tired and not thinking something through all the way. It’s actually shocking how much that helps soften MY heart before I even bring it up.

    • November 9, 2011 12:12 pm

      Yes! That’s such a great perspective and it comes from really knowing Zach’s heart and character and trusting him. It’s so great when your heart is able to be softened even when you’re the one who is upset!

  2. November 8, 2011 5:16 pm

    I was just thinking about the frequency with which John and I fight, and realized it’s fairly unusual-it actually makes it tougher to get good at it, as silly as that sounds. But when we do argue, I’m always the angry party, so I make sure to tell John that I love him and am simply frustrated by…and then launch into whatever I’m going to say. Sometimes it helps John stay calmer during our fights, and they’re always more productive that way!

    • November 9, 2011 12:13 pm

      Uh, it sounds like you’re already pretty darn good at “fighting.” The fact that you’re able to preface your approach by telling John you love him is awesome. It makes sense that you don’t argue very often! 🙂

  3. November 8, 2011 8:45 pm

    Good advice. I will try to remember the soft start up, but mostly I lead with emotions!


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