Difficult conversations epitomize the concept of crisis as a moment of risk as well as opportunity. Much of the quality of relationships is determined by how well we handle difficult conversations. Handled well, they further trust and intimacy; handled poorly, they can damage the relationship.
Starting difficult conversations is…well…difficult. How we introduce the conversation can make the difference in whether or not each person opens or closes to the possibility of greater understanding and closeness.
John Gottman talks about the very important skill of “soft start-up” for which he gives a few rules such as using “I” statements, describing instead of evaluating, being clear about what you need and being polite. I would add things like: slow things down; and make a brief statement of what you want to talk about followed by a request for conversation and flexibility about timing. All these strategies give your partner the best chance of responding mindfully, with an open aperture, to a difficult conversation.
Yet sometimes, if we are upset or merely unskillful, words coming rushing out that are anything but soft start-up. Strategies that allow couples to recover from mistakes are at least as important as those for avoiding mistakes. I want to suggest the “doorbell” strategy for dealing with a difficult opening so that both of you are allowed to slow down, calm down, and re-open apertures.
Imagine this: your work place has been going through a period of tight deadlines for a very big project. You, like everyone there, have been working much more than usual, racing against the clock. You come home very late day after day, and when home you are often exhausted or irritable. Your partner is increasingly upset and also afraid that talking about it will only make it worse.
Finally he decides he must speak to you. Anxiety pounding in his head he says, “I can’t take it anymore. You’re never home, and when you are, you’re impossible to deal with.” The likely response that rises up in you, to the accompaniment of your own double-time heart rate, is something like, “ What do you mean I’m never home!? We just finished having dinner together and last weekend I took the kids to a ball game. And as for impossible, I’d say I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping my cool for someone working as hard as I am for this family!”
And bingo! You are launched into exactly the fight he had feared.
But what if you were to respond to the less than skillful opening as a “doorbell” comment? This means that you recover from the negative effects of his less than “soft” start-up, return to openness and compassion, and treat whatever was said as a request for a conversation, a doorbell requesting entry. After giving yourself a moment to
recover from his less than skillful “doorbell,” your response might sound something like,” Wow! I had no idea you are so upset about this. And you’re right it’s a difficult time at work and I’m not home as much. We should probably sit down soon and talk about how to handle this better.” A partner who is genuinely looking for connection and conversation, but mishandled the start-up, may respond to this open aperture, by opening their own and with something like, “yea, I’m really upset and have been scared to bring it up. It would be great if we could talk about it.”
A skillful recovery has moved the two of you away from damage and toward a more trusting conversation and relationship. Intimate relationships involve many mistakes and many false starts. What matters most is how the two of you deal with the mistakes, how well you recover and move forward.