Gentle Startup: The Formula

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Emotional communication requires different skills than business communication.  In a business, teaching, or informational setting, the goals are often clear.  One person has information to give and the other person knows their role is to receive it and take action or learn and grow.  Both people are there to get a task done and move on.  So emotions don’t usually enter into it.  That is not to say that business or public settings cannot be informed by emotions or even taken over by them.  But we tend to see emotional expression as a distractor, something to be managed, or held at bay so the communication can serve its purpose.

In relationships that involve closeness, attachment, love, romance, or friendship, emotions are very much a part of the experiential landscape.  I cannot just give information to my friend about my upcoming trip, I want to draw him or her into the excitement, the dream, the plans I have that I am looking forward to.  Even a business trip becomes an emotional narrative when repeated to a friend or loved one.

In relational communication, some topics carry even more emotional weight and risk.  When we want to give negative feedback to someone we care about.  On the one hand, we know that as a friend, spouse, or parent, our feedback can be valuable. On the other hand, it is never easy to give negative feedback that can be taken in as loving rather than insulting.

Here is a formula, called the Gentle Startup (From Dr. John Gottman), that can help us complain gently, or give negative feedback in a way that is more likely to be received as caring.

The formula goes like this:

I feel  (a feeling)when  (a neutral description of the event or issue) , I wish or want (a positive request).

I Feel — this is where the person delivering the feedback looks for what inside them is reacting or struggling with the experience of what the other person said or did.  So if you left dishes out, I can label your behavior or I can describe my internal reaction.  Most of the time, describing my internal feelings is going to be received as less threatening.

When — this allows for the communication to be situated in a particular context.  This way, I don’t sound like I am suddenly breaking into a feeling in a random moment or with no plausible reason.  The “when” provides the context.  The most important thing here is to describe the when in a neutral manner.  When is often followed by a description that is factual and non-emotional.  It is best also if the “when” is followed by an observation, a factual description that does not place blame on anyone.

I wish or I want — this is where the giver of feedback has an opportunity to talk about what they wish would happen instead.  When my partner or child does something that annoys me, what do I really want out of giving them feedback?  I usually want them to change their behavior.  Making them feel bad for what they did is not going to accomplish this task.  The gentle startup sets the stage for them to hear what the impact of their behavior is on me, and in this portion, the “I wish” gives them something to do or say that will make them successful in repairing or fixing the problem.  There is nothing more satisfying than feeling like we have given our loved one something they really want.  This step of the Gentle Startup formula accomplishes that.  It gives our loved one a pathway to succeed with us, to show us how much they care or how much we mean to them.

So the next time you are having a communication with a business partner, go ahead and be factual, rational, and non-emotional.  But if you are communicating with a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend, or another loved one, then stop and think about how you can communicate that sets you both up for success.  Good luck communicating gently!

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