How to Talk So Your Partner Will Listen | Tips from an Austin Couples Therapist


While there are many aspects at play that contribute to having an effective discussion during conflict, one of the most important is the way the discussion starts. Many times, when two people are in conflict, it’s not a discussion at all… it’s an argument… a fight. One of the reasons a fight breaks out is because of the way the topic is brought up in the first place.

How it Usually Goes

Think about it, when you’re upset with your partner or have a complaint about something, how do you typically tell them? I mean, some of the phrases I’ve definitely thrown out there in the past sounded something like this…

  • “You never do the dishes! It’s always my responsibility.”
  • “There you go again, just doing your own thing. You don’t even care about spending time with me. You’re so selfish.”
  • “I can’t believe you. You’re so lazy, just lying on the couch while I’m cleaning the house.”

Sound familiar? Trust me... I’m not proud.


When you begin conversations with criticism, blame your partner for something, or come at them with feelings of disgust or contempt, they’re most likely going to be defensive. They’ll probably feel attacked and feel the need to protect themselves. On the flip-side, when your partner comes at you this way, do you go into defense mode too? It’s only natural that you would.

According to John and Julie Gottman, renowned therapists and relationship researchers, one of the keys to changing these interactions from fights to productive discussions is in the start-up. In fact, through their research, the Gottmans have found that 96% of the time the outcome of a conversation can be predicted based on the first 3 minutes.

My complaint start-up examples above are called harsh start-ups. They begin harshly and are focused on the other person’s behavior or character. They set the discussion up for failure from the get-go and destroy any opportunity for the complainant to be truly heard and understood. Though you may have a valid complaint and may even eventually get what you want, your partner is really unable to actually listen to you with understanding because they’re left feeling threatened by the harsh comments. No conversation ever ends well when you come in with guns blazing.

The Alternative

So, how can you bring up a complaint or tell your partner you want them to do something differently in a way that sets you both up for success?

The Gottmans call this more effective approach a soft start-up. With a soft start-up, you’re essentially easing into the complaint, so you’re not making your partner feel the need to defend him or herself. In a nutshell, you’re kind of doing the opposite of what many of us do in the responses above.

The Soft Start-up

  • Refrain from blaming, criticising, or focusing on the parts of your partner you think of as flawed
  • Use statements that begin with “I,” rather than “you,” to express how you feel
    • Example: “I feel like I’m not being considered when…” vs. “You don’t care about me.”
  • Discuss one specific event or topic
  • State a positive need
    • A positive need is something your partner can actually do to help meet your need.
      • Stating a positive need sets your partner up for success. By making an actionable request, you’re handing them the tools so that they know how to be a really good partner and better meet your needs in the relationship.
    • A negative need is something that you don’t want from your partner.
      • Stating a negative need leaves your partner without a clear direction. They only know what not to do, rather than what to do.
    • Example:
      • Positive need: “I need you to turn to look at me when I’m speaking and to let me completely finish speaking before you start talking.”
      • Negative need: “I need you to stop talking over me.”

Just like in the harsh start-up examples, you’re expressing a complaint, something you want to see different, or a desire of some kind. The difference is, you’re doing it in a way that makes your need and your feelings about the matter apparent without tearing your partner down in the process.

To even formulate a complaint like this, you have to take a second to think about what you feel and need in the first place, and you have to be intentional with your words. You have to slow down instead of immediately saying whatever pops into your mind during that first moment of hurt or frustration.


Harsh Start-ups vs. Soft Start-ups

  • Harsh Start-up: “You never do the dishes! It’s always my responsibility.”
  • Soft Start-up: “I feel frustrated about the fact that I’ve been doing the dishes a lot lately. I’d really appreciate it if you could do them tonight.”


  • Harsh Start-up: “There you go again, just doing your own thing. You don’t even care about spending time with me. You’re so selfish.”
  • Soft Start-up: “I’d really like to plan a date soon or plan some time to connect. It seems like we haven’t spent much time together lately, and I’m feeling neglected.”


  • Harsh Start-up: “You’re so lazy, just lying on the couch while I’m cleaning the house. You don’t even care about having a nice place.”
  • Soft Start-up: “I know you’re tired after having worked all day, but I feel overwhelmed with doing housework alone. Can we agree on a time when you’ll help me clean up today?”

If this way of communicating is different for you, it’s worth taking some time to talk to your partner about trying something new. Obviously, in order for your complaint to be discussed, rather than argued about, your partner will need to try to be understanding and receptive to your request or need. If you’re both on the same page, it makes things a little easier. You can ask them to try to be gentle and understanding as you each try out using soft start-ups. This simple step won’t fix everything about the way you fight, but it is a small step in the right direction.

If your relationship could use some extra help with communication and conflict management, consider contacting an Austin Couples Therapist. Submit a form for a free 15-minute phone consultation with me today at Austin Relational Wellness.