Pick the right time: Many people believe they should be able to complain whenever they feel like it. And, of course, like so much in marriage and relationships, you’re free to do it whenever you want. But, if your goal is to have a happy, healthier relationship then you have to pay attention to what it feels like to be on the other end of the complaint. Bearing this in mind, these are my recommendations:
Tell your partner that there’s something you’d like to talk with him or her about and you’re wondering if this is a good time.
If they say yes, then proceed. If they say no, then ask when is a good time and make them commit to something reasonable.
Once you have the time set aside, tell them there’s something that’s bugging you and then tell them the ranking of how much or how little it’s bugging you. For example, “Something happened that I want to talk with you about. On a scale of 1-10 (1: No biggie –10: Divorce level) it’s about a 3 but it’s been happening a lot lately and I wanted to go over it with you.” The reason that you give it a ranking is that you want to do as much as possible to lower their defensiveness. Obviously, if it’s a 10 you won’t be able to do that, but oh well. Hopefully you’ll still communicate your feelings in a way that will minimize a chance of a defensive response.
Compliment sandwich: One of the most effective ways to lower your partner’s defensiveness (and have I made it clear by now how important it is to lower your partner’s defensiveness?) is to start and end with an appreciation. Here’s an example of a mother who doesn’t like how impatient and sometimes critical her husband is of the children. She starts off by saying: “I think you’re a great Dad and I think the kids are lucky to have a parent who’s as involved as you are.” Why is this useful to start out this way? It makes it clear that she isn’t out for blood. She’s not there to humiliate or shame him. It’s a way of saying that what is about to follow is only part of the picture. And studies show that conversations typically end the way that they begin. Researcher John Gottman refers to this technique as a “gentle start-up.”
Next state the complaint in as mild of terms as you can. “I do feel like you’re sometimes more angry and impatient with the kids than feels good to me. Do you feel like that at all?” To which he may say, “No, not at all.” She can respond by saying, “Okay, well maybe I’m being overly worried or maybe you’re not seeing the same things I’m seeing. But it looks like they get a lot more upset by your anger than I’d like them to feel. Either way, it’s hard on me. Is there anything you need different from me to offer more support around this? Is this something you’d be willing to talk more about or think more about with me?” He may remain defensive no matter how expertly she puts it. If that’s the case she should end with, “Okay, well maybe we have to agree to disagree about this for now and revisit it in the future. Thanks at least for hearing me out.”
There are several reasons why this kind of approach will be far more likely to work than something which is more angry or critical, however justifiable that may seem. The first is that she starts with a compliment. Then when she gets into the complaint, she makes it clear that he may well see things differently than she does. No matter how much she thinks she’s right, she still maximizes the chance that he’ll be receptive to her perspective if she comes from the place that he has a right to see things how he sees them and that she may be wrong, even though she doesn’t think she is.
In saying, “Either way it’s hard on me” she keeps it in the language of the I statement. She sidesteps the right/wrong conundrum which is always a guarantee of conflict. In addition, saying that it’s hard on her gives him a way to feel motivated to change without worrying whether or not he’s a bad father to respond in the way that he does. It also lessens the probability of proving his independence of her by defying her wishes.
When she says “Maybe I’m being overly worried or maybe you’re not seeing the same things I’m seeing” she’s acknowledging his reality but also reasserting that she is seeing something that she thinks is important.