How to make a complaint, and have your partner listen

For a period of 3 years I have been teaching couples how to utilize the teachings of Dr. John Gottman. As a Marriage Education Facilitator and Marriage Coach I have worked with over 200 couples, facilitated over 200 classes on marital success, and every time I teach I find the wisdom of Gottman to be spot on.

Today I want to share one tip that I have found to be monumental in helping couples improve their ability to discuss problems and resolve them. First off I want to say that the information I am sharing comes from Gottman’s work, and the insight from there is my own.

In Gottman’s research he found that the first three minutes couples spend talking about a problem is more important then the rest of the conversation. That means how you bring up a problem and how your partner’s initial response is more important then the rest of the conversation.

In the work that I did with couples I taught them how to gently bring up an issue so their partner would listen. When Gottman analyzes a couple he looks for warning signs- one of those signs is criticism. Often times when we want to bring up a problem we begin by blaming and attributing the problem to our partner personally- that’s criticism. For example, let’s say the house is dirty and we are upset with our partner about it. In the heat of the moment we might say, “Damn it Luis you’re so messy. You’re such a lazy slob…” This is criticism because we are calling Luis messy, and making him and who he is out to be the problem. How many of us want to listen to this? Would you want to help with the house after this statement? Of course we don’t like it, and of course it often leads to us being bothered by our partner.

In Gottman’s work he says that if we are able to bring up issues in a gentle way, we invite our partner in for conversation and open up dialogue. So, how can we softly bring up issues? We do it through making “I feel” statements, followed by objective observations, followed by a request. While this may seem too formulaic at first, trust me it works. I would also like to add that this is the same formula used in Marshall Rosenburg’s book, “Nonviolent Communication.”

Here’s how you can utilize the information I used to teach, and Dr. John Gottman teaches for several hundred dollars.

1- When you observe the problem, identify the feeling it brings up in you.  (Example, when I see that the house is messy I feel frustrated…I feel upset…I feel angry…sad…) If you use statements such as, “I feel like…” or “I feel that..” you are not talking about feelings–whatever follows after like or that are not feelings but rather judgements. “I feel like your being an ass.” “I feel that you don’t love me.” These are not feeling statements, but rather judgments and often times make the other feel guilty. We don’t want guilt, we want openness and to create a space for conversation and listening. Use I feel – then insert one word right after feel–nothing else. One word follows I feel, not two or three words.

2- State the problem in an objective manner. (Example: I feel upset when I see that the house is a complete mess– or better–when there’s dirty dishes all over the kitchen). The more specific you are about what the problem is, the more easily the resolution can come about.

3- State your need. (I need you to help me wash the dishes, I need us to be more attentive to the kitchen..I need you to wash your dishes after you eat/cook…) In my work I noticed that women often times had a harder time asking for what they needed, but when they learned to free their voice and ask they felt a cathartic release and often times their husbands did too.

On a side note, this way of speaking may seem awkard at first but it really does help open up conversation and get people on your side. Also know that just because you use this method it does not mean your partner will not oblige, but it will open them up to understanding. If understanding is reached, our partner will likely naturally oblige our requests, and do so happily. The point of this method is more about stating problems in way that allows for conversation, listening, and often times this leads to a solution.

In Dr. John Gottman’s work he noted that 69% of problems don’t have a solution, while 31% of problems are solveable. In my own work I found this to be true–there are problems that really don’t have a solution. For example, couples of different religions might never resolve their issue about their belief system and how they choose to raise their kids with their differing ideaologies. There are many little characteristics that make each one of us unique, and in a relationships there are differences that create problems that don’t have a “solution” –but there is a way to work with differences so more intimacy can be created.

In my next blog I look forward to sharing with you how couples utilized their perpetual problems as a way to create more intimacy, understanding, and closeness. Until then feel free to comment, and share your own insights.

To deepening love, and your intimacy with self and others. Namaste- Luis


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