So many people have a hard time addressing valid concerns or complaints in their relationships for fear that it will lead to an argument.
But I’ve got news for you! Not having these conversations has consequences, too, in the form of unnecessary tension, lashing out, and even long-term resentment.
When it comes to difficult conversations, I’m a big fan of “kind candor,” a term I learned from Gary Vaynerchuck that involves voicing your concerns firmly but in a kind and gentle tone.
My all-time favorite relationship experts, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, do an amazing job at putting kind candor into action by using what they call a soft start-up.
Today we’re talking about soft start-ups and how you can use them with your partner, peers, family, boss, or coworkers to have more productive, positive, and honest conversations.
Let’s jump in!
The Soft Start-Up: What Is It, Exactly?
The way you begin a conversation is a good indicator of how the rest of it will go. If you start a conversation by accusing, blaming, or attacking, chances are the person on the receiving end will feel accused, blamed, or attacked and not listen to what you have to say anyway.
It’s not that your issues aren’t valid or that they can’t be addressed. But when you’re too frank without maintaining a kind tone, the other person will almost always get defensive, which increases the likelihood of an argument.
With the soft start-up, your approach is different. You address sensitive topics in a clear, direct and yet gentle way, so it becomes less about placing the blame on the other person and more about sharing how their behavior makes you feel. This makes it easier to work together to come up with a solution.
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Here are a few real-life examples of “normal” ways of bringing up a concern in your relationships with your partner, coworkers, or child vs using a soft start-up:
Example 1: Spouse or Romantic Partner
Typical: “Babe, why do you keep blowing money on books you’ll never read? You aren’t a big reader anyway, and I feel like you’re just wasting our hard-earned money.”
Soft Start-Up: “Babe, I know how much you care about learning, so I want to see if we can find a more cost-effective way to get you the information you are looking for. Some of the books you buy don’t get touched. Would you be game for exploring another option that helps us save money?”
Example 2: Coworker
Typical: “I told you I needed this assignment by the end of the day, and you didn’t get it to me. Why can’t you ever follow through?”
Soft Start-Up: “The last time we talked, we agreed that you’d get this assignment to me by the end of the day. If you are stuck or need help, please reach out. And if not, could you commit to turning it in as soon as possible?”
Example 3: Child
Typical: “I asked you to clean your room while I was out running errands, and it still isn’t clean. What’s wrong with you? Stop being lazy and do what you’re told!”
Soft Start-Up: “I had a long day, and we talked about you cleaning your room while I was out. Before you do anything else, I would really appreciate if you could please go upstairs and tidy up your room.”
Why the Soft Start-Up Works
The Gottmans have observed through their research that couples who have a harsh or hostile way of dealing with conflict are more unhappy and unsuccessful than those who use a more positive demeanor.
This is why the soft start-up is so effective when approaching difficult conversations—it’s less likely to cause an argument and can lead to more productive, solution-oriented conversations. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind when you use a soft start-up:
- Be kind and clear. Calmly describe what you see in the situation and how it makes you feel. Be direct with what you need from the other person but try not to accuse or place blame on them.
- Consider how the person you’re talking with would receive the feedback. This is a good reminder to be intentional about the issue you want to bring up. Think about your soft start-up and how you’d like the conversation to go. For example, if you messed up, or someone thought you missed something, how would you want someone to bring it up to you?This takes practice. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t go perfectly the first time around.
- Focus more on “I” and less on “you” (the other person). This will naturally come across as less accusatory and will allow your partner to get a sense of how you feel.For example, instead of saying, “You never listen to me,” try saying, “I don’t feel heard right now. I’d appreciate your undivided attention, so I can explain why.”
Or instead of, “You just don’t get it,” try, “I feel misunderstood. Can we please talk about why? I’d feel a lot better.”
Bonus: Stay away from extreme words like “never” and “always”.
Having difficult conversations is a part of life. We all have to do it! It’s the way we go about it that matters.
When you can express your concerns with kindness and without blame, it paves the way for collaborative efforts so that both people can walk away feeling lighter and like you’re getting what you want out of the relationship.
Be intentional with your tone, keep it kind and positive—and maybe even a little playful—and watch how it makes a difference.
Here’s to healthier conversations (and relationships!),