Conversations––The Way They Start is The Way They End
Jan 25, 2018 11:11AM
● By Dr. Jeffery D. Hamilton, LCSW
Dr. John Gottman, world-renowned couples therapist and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, teaches couples and therapists that “the way a conversation begins is the way it ends.” It is true; the spirit, the style of communication that lives at the beginning of a conversation will set the tone for the whole conversation—and our feeling of satisfaction at the end.
Healthy communication requires an internal GPS. If we don’t know where we are headed, we’ll never get there. If we miss a turn, or stop for a meal, we can get back on route because the destination is never forgotten.
GPS asks for a destination, a location. It does not ask for an approximate ending. The same is true for interpersonal communication. “Where are we headed?” is the starting query.
Before starting, decide the destination. What do you want to communicate? What’s your goal? It can’t be to control, to coerce or manipulate. The destination, the goal, has to be the message, the meaning of what you want the other person to know, to understand when the communication is complete. The message needs to be only a few words, a conclusion or goal. If it’s not clear to you, it will not be clear to anyone else.
These few minutes can make all the difference in the quality and outcome of the conversation. It can feel odd, even scripted, however that is what is needed. Healthy conversations, like relationships, do not just happen. They are conscious actions—the awareness of the value of the other person—and the shared relationship makes communication valuable.
When you begin with, “What I want you to understand when we’re done talking is...”, “When we’re done with this conversation, it’s important to me that you understand...” or simply, “I need you to understand how sad I am that...” the listener is able to focus upon your message.
Any way you can share the meaning of this conversation for you is the task and the goal. It is not, “I want to convince you that you’re wrong and I’m right,” but rather, “I want you to know how terrible I feel about the way I acted earlier.”
Why is this so important? Remember those conversations when you wondered right to the end, “What are they talking about? I’m lost...” You began to get angry, and maybe even challenged the speaker with, “You’re making no sense—again!” As the conversation progressed, with this lack of clear destination, distance was created. You, the listener, were no longer present, and the speaker was left to wonder why the conversation became so difficult—even conflictual. The way it started was the way it ended.
The listener’s task is, simply put, to be curious, not defensive. Asking more about the meaning, in a curious, not combative or challenging way, is the key.
By beginning with what Gottman calls a soft start-up, we are able to reduce the potential for misunderstanding and conflict. There is no need for being critical, being judgmental or stonewalling as Gottman would put it. A soft start-up, a conscious awareness of the message you want to send, honors the relationship you have, and creates the foundation for a deeper understanding.
Gottman talks about small things often. By this he means relationships are improved not by large actions, gifts or deeds. Relationships become healthier when we realize that a small change in the moment can create a great change in the future. Attending to something as simple as the way we begin a conversation can create a great change in the future.
Before sharing, take a pause and ask, “What do I want to make sure is understood?” Then engage, and enjoy the sharing of story.
Gottman’s book is a great resource for study with your partner. It includes surveys, ideas and suggestions to make relationships healthier. This is also the basis for workshops of the same name presented by trained presenters.
Dr. Jeffrey D. Hamilton is director of Lancaster Pastoral Counseling and Education, LLC and Couples Communication of Lancaster. Contact him at 717-392-1007. For more information, visit LancPastoralCounseling.com and CouplesCommunicationLancaster.com.