How to Use a Soft Startup to Navigate Conflict

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How to Use a Soft Startup to Navigate Conflict

Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship, but how we approach it can make all the difference. One tool that I like to give my couples counseling and relationship coaching clients is called a soft startup. Knowing how to use a soft startup helps you start important conversations off on the right foot, increasing the likelihood that you will be able to find productive solutions that bring you closer together.

What Is a Soft Startup? 

A soft startup is a communication technique that involves approaching conflicts or disagreements in a gentle and non-aggressive manner. When you use a soft startup, you focus on your own feelings and experiences, using “I” statements to express your point of view and request what you need. A soft startup also doesn’t include “always” or “never” statements, instead focusing on the specific situation at hand. 

For example, you could say, “I made the children’s lunches this past week. Could you make them next week?” Instead of saying “You never help me make the children’s lunches.” One of these statements invites your partner to meet your needs, the other will likely leave your partner feeling attacked and defensive. 

There are many benefits to using a soft startup. It protects from triggering a defensive reaction in your partner, which helps you avoid a nasty argument. It invites an open conversation about disagreements that will allow you to find a compromise. It also removes judgment, criticism, aggression, accusations, and passive aggressive statements that are not helpful for any relationship. Finally, using a soft startup supports emotional intimacy, because it helps you to share your feelings in an emotionally safe way that your partner can hear and respond to with care. 

When You Don’t Use a Soft Startup

The opposite of a soft startup is launching into a conflict in a way that feels judgmental, accusatory, or aggressive. When you don’t use a soft startup, your partner is much more likely to feel criticized and to respond to you with defensiveness, which can kick off a chain reaction that escalates minor disagreements into nasty fights. Dr. John Gottman, who coined the term “soft startup,” calls this cycle of criticism and defensiveness part of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” because it’s a top predictor that a relationship will fail. 

If conflicts are frequently hurtful and damaging, one or both of you may start avoiding conflict, which leaves resentments to pile up and for negative narratives about each other to take hold. If left unchecked, this can eventually erode the trust and emotional intimacy in your relationship.

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Examples of a Soft Startup

Here are a few more examples of how you can use a soft startup to navigate conflict: 

When you’re feeling frustrated about being interrupted: 

Soft Start-Up: “We both have a lot to say about this; one of us has to go first because interrupting each other is not going to take us anywhere.”

Opposite: “I hate that you always interrupt me and never let me say what is on my mind.”

Addressing an irritating habit:

Soft Start-Up: “I’d really love it if you put your dirty clothes in the hamper.”

Opposite: “I don’t understand why you can’t put your dirty clothes in the hamper.”

Expressing emotional needs:

Soft Start-Up: “I missed you this week; could we set time aside in the next few days to enjoy each other?”

Opposite: “You never have time for me.”

Now, imagine having these conversations with your partner, and how they would go if you used the soft startup, versus how they would go if you used the opposite approach. I’m guessing the difference is clear!

Support for Better Communication and Healthier Relationships

Every disagreement is an opportunity for real connection and engagement with your partner if you use soft start-up. It helps you find productive solutions and turn points of conflict into moments that help your relationship grow

If you would like my support with mastering a soft startup and other communication skills in your relationship, I invite you to schedule a free consultation


Alejandra S., M.A., LMFT

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