How to Complain to Your Partner and Get Results

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Here’s a fun fact: scientific research done at the Gottman Institute indicates that the tone in which a conversation starts off will inevitably end in a similar vein…

Which means, according to the data, if you start a conversation with a critical, contemptuous and/or sarcastic tone, there is a 96% chance the conversation will end disdainfully. Dr. John Gottman, who has studied relationships for the past 30 years, calls this the “Harsh Startup.”

A harsh startup is often recognized by its preamble “You always,” or “You never.” As in “You always leave your dirty dishes in the sink,”  “You never put the toilet paper on the right way.” This often leads to an eye roll, an exasperated gasp, folded arms and a “Well, if you weren’t such a control-freak!” retort. Suddenly, you find yourself transported into a full-fledged argument that rivals any Jerry Springer episode. Unfortunately, Dr. Gottman says that couples who have the habit of harsh startups have a 75% likelihood of breaking up.

In any relationship, there will be legitimate complaints. Yet no one likes to hear a complaint, because no one likes to be told what to do or that they’re doing something wrong.

In any relationship, there will be legitimate complaints. Yet no one likes to hear a complaint, because no-one likes to be told what to do or that they’re doing something wrong. Nevertheless, if someone is doing something that bothers us, say leaving their dirty sock on the floor, how do we get them to hear us without putting them in a defensive posture and starting skirmish? In other words, how to do we register a complaint without sounding critical and getting off on a harsh startup?

A couple of years ago I was watching the Cooking Channel. During an episode of “Iron Chef,left hand” one of the judges complimented the winner by saying “It’s all in the presentation.” Come to find out this is a fairly common expression in the cutlery culture, and the phrase really stuck with to me. Because I do a lot of work in the area of couples conflicts, it dawned on me that the mastery of communication is a lot like being a master chef … “It’s all in the presentation.”

burger 2To illustrate this further, I like to teach my clients what I call the “Hamburger Communication Principle.” It goes like this… imagine I am holding a paper plate in my right hand. On it is a hamburger. I picked up this hamburger at a truck-stop about an hour ago after it had been sitting under a heat lamp. The bun is flat and stale, the cheese is crusty and the grease from the shriveled meat has leaked onto the paper plate creating a translucent veneer. The left-hand holds a beautiful china plate. On this plate is also a hamburger, but this hamburger is a thick ground sirloin-patty grilled to perfection. It is imgresgarnished with a fresh tomato slice, lettuce, dill pickle and melted cheddar-cheese. To top it off, there is a voluptuous onion bun pierced with one of those fancy tooth-picks with that decorative curly cellophane. Now which hamburger do you want? If you’re like most people, you choose the second. When making a complaint … make it appetizing.

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The Appetizing Startup: 

The opposite of a harsh startup is what I call the “Appetizing Startup.” It’s acknowledging the complaint without being criticizing or condescending and presented with an appetizing way. It doesn’t always work, but it works better than handing your significant other a greasy burger! Here is a five step suggested recipe for creating an appetizing startup:

Step one – Frame it in the form of a request rather than a statement: a mentor once told me, “If you have enough information for a statement, you have enough information for a question.” A question is a request for help, and most people really do want to be helpful. This also feel less threatening, because you’re giving someone a choice rather than making a demand. Again, no one likes to be told what to do. When you use a statement to form a complaint you’re more likely to hit a defensive wall with your partner.  A statement like “you left your socks on the floor.” comes off like a challenge. Framing it in the form of a question, “Would you please pick up your socks?” is the first step in a appetizing startup.

Traditional wisdom tells us that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Words like; darling, sweetie, beautiful etc. soften the request.

Step two – Add some sugar: Traditional wisdom tells us that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Words like; darling, sweetie, beautiful etc. soften the request. “Honey, would you please pick up your socks?” sounds even better and less likely to get a harsh response

Step three – The Compliment Sandwich: Perhaps you’ve already heard this concept before. Think of a compliment as the bread and the request as the meat. “Honey, you’re such a great help help. Would you please pick up your socks? You’re the best.”

Step four – Express how completing the request will impact you: Think about the outcome. What is it you want to accomplish with the request? Use this as a springboard to express your need. “Honey, you’re such a great help. Would you please pick up your socks? You’re the best and this would be really helpful for me because I’m trying to get all the laundry done before the weekend is over.”

Step five – Expression of gratitude: The finishing coat is an acknowledgement of appreciation “Honey, you’re such a great help help. Would you please pick up your socks? You’re the best and this would be really helpful for me because I’m trying to get all the laundry done for the weekend. By the way, I really appreciate all that you do.” Everyone wants to feel appreciated and needed, and when we speak to the person’s emotional need for appreciation we’re more likely to get our intended results.

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This might sound kind of corny, but this versus “you always leave your socks on the floor” will likely get you better results if done with sincerity. Remember “it’s all in the presentation,” and when you practice an appetizing startup, you have a better chance of a harmonious relationship … It’s a scientific fact.

Resources: 

Download a conversation starter worksheet for this page.

The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

 

 

  • Hey, good to find sonomee who agrees with me. GMTA.