One of John Gottman’s key observations is that the way we speak has a huge impact on others’ abilities to listen to us. Added to this is that the way a conversation begins is highly predictive of how not only that conversation will go, but also predictive of how the relationship as a whole will go. There is a deep need to learn how to speak so others can listen, and listen so that they’ll be encouraged to speak lovingly.

The gentle (a.k.a. “softened”) start-up is the best way to bring up feelings and needs or just start any conversation. It is like a three-legged stool that won’t support any weight if any of the legs are missing. It is the antidote to the relationship poisons of criticism and contempt. I practice this in my relationships, and I encourage you to use this format as a way to be more intentional in yours.

1) “I feel…[state an actual feeling that branches off of one of the primary emotions of mad, sad, glad, afraid, or ashamed/embarrassed…NOT “I feel that…” or “I feel like…”, which would instantly take you into expressing a THOUGHT, not a feeling.]

2) “About what…” [Try describing what you are experiencing, using your 5 senses and what they take in. “I heard this…”, “I saw that…”. Avoid explaining or interpreting what something means to you at this point, and keep this part as succinct as possible. You will overwhelm your listener if there are too many words here. Avoid describing the motives or intent of your partner, or even sharing what you THINK their motives/intentions were. Talk about it like a reporter at the scene, not an editor who is writing an opinion.

3) “And I need…” [Give your listener a specific request that is doable, time-sensitive, and small, that will give you even a little bit of relief for the feeling you shared above.] Without sharing what you need, you risk feeling unattended.

Response: When you hear a feeling and/or a need, try to reflect and validate the feeling your partner shared. Start your response with some form of, “I hear you’re feeling _________, and that makes sense to me.” And lead with “YES!” to a simple request, unless you truly have a compelling reason to say “NO”.  And even then, strive to say “No,” in a “turning toward” way. But really try to say a simple “Yes” to a simple request; don’t analyze too much. For example, if your partner says something like, “I feel proud of what I just contributed to our evening, and I’d like to hear you acknowledge it,” what have you got to lose (and consider what you may gain) by responding with, “I want you to know I appreciate what you did this evening,”?

Never forget the power of this very moment to give us a significant positive interaction that could lead to a whole chain of them. Pretty soon, you’re stringing together enough good moments that your perspective about the big picture begins to shift.