How to Start a

What we have found through research, specifically from the Gottman Institute, is that the first three minutes of a conversation, predicts how the conversation is going to go, and how it's going to end. Alyssa Doberstein, MS, LMFT a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in couples & sex therapy and owner of Relational and Sexual Health Initiative, discusses the difference between what is referred to as a harsh startup and a soft startup.

By Alyssa Doberstein, MS, LMFT


Hi, y’all thank you for joining me today. My name is Alyssa Doberstein. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. I specialize in couples & sex therapy and I’m the owner of Relational and Sexual Health Initiative.


I wanted to talk with you all today about “How to Start a Conversation.” What we have found through research, specifically for the Gottman Institute, is that the first three minutes of a conversation, it does really predict how that conversation is going to go, and how it’s going to end.


So I want to talk with you all about the difference between what we refer to as a harsh startup and a soft startup. 

What we have found through research, specifically from the Gottman Institute, is that the first three minutes of a conversation, it does really predict how that conversation is going to go, and how it's going to end.

Harsh Start Up

So a harsh startup is one that can be a little bit quick, it can have a harshness to it, it can be laced with some blame or even criticism.


Sometimes our tone isn’t always the way that we want it to, I know is busy moms, right, we’re kind of running from here or there. And sometimes we’re just kind of, I think quick to get the message out. So sometimes when it comes out again, in that way, for twos that harsh way, sometimes our partner doesn’t really hear the need, or the deeper message in that request.

Soft Start Up

And so the flip side of that is what we refer to as a soft startup.


And so soft startup is really coming from a vulnerable place where we’re owning our experience. We’re speaking to our emotional experiences and then what is needed for ourselves within the relationship.


And so finding some kind of quick ways to be able to articulate that I know can be helpful, especially again, when we’re short on time when we’re busy parents.


And so I wanted to talk to you about a quick kind of three step process that a lot of my couples have found helpful. And and so how it goes:

  1. We start with saying just how we feel right, so I feel blank, you really begin to own that experience.
  2. The next step is about what it is, so here is a really important piece, because we want to get away from again, that blame and throwing out some of those YOU bombs, as I call them. And so really trying to focus on what was happening or what’s happening for you.
  3. And then the what we do is we end with the I need. And so that’s where you’re really going to own what that need is for you.


And what we’re going to add to that is we can focus on what we don’t like or what’s not going well, or what we want our partner to stop. And so what I want to give you again, with that “I need” is we’re going to flip that a little bit as well and focus on what’s the thing you want your partner to add.


And so what research tells us about that, too, is people can hear that message a little bit more clearly, it’s less likely to trigger some of their own internal wounds their pain points, right, they feel like they’re failing you. And so the more we can focus on the positive kind of addition, the easier it’s going to be for our message to be received by our partner.

Examples of Hard and Soft Conversation Start Ups

So I’ll give you a couple examples to let’s say, right, again, we’re busy, we’re trying to rush do dishes, cook dinner, all these things that are important to kind of keep our family going, I think we’re having maybe a rough day, right? The example of a hard startup might go something like, “Hey, I’m overwhelmed. Like you’ve never helped me with the dishes, like what’s going on?”


Whereas examples of soft start might be “Hey, Dave, I’m feeling really overwhelmed. I have a lot going on, and I’m not really feeling like we’re working as a team, the last couple of weeks. I really need to feel like we’re a partnership Can you help me do the dishes tonight?”


And so that’s a bit more of a, I think, benign example. But those subtle shifts can really make a big impact on how our partner can hears us. And so you can use this type of technique with anything from chores like the example I gave, you can use it with intimacy, right.


So another example might be, “Hey, I’m feeling really disconnected. I know, we’ve both been working, taking care of kids. I really need us to sit down tonight, and just even maybe cuddle on the couch for five minutes.”


And so those needs can be something that are a little bit more specific, like the examples I gave, or you can use ones that are a little bit more general. But trying to be as specific and tangible so that your partner can really understand what that is.

Ways to Respond

And then the other piece of that, too, is the other person, right? Once you’re able to articulate what that is, how our partner responds to that request is also really important. Because again, we’re taking time to be vulnerable. And so we want to make sure that we’re able to kind of catch what our partner is sharing with us.


And so you’ve got a few options as far as how you respond:

  1. One, you want to make sure that we’re always acknowledging what our partner said, like, “Hey, babe, I hear you say you’re feeling overwhelmed, right, and that you’re needing this from me.” So that quick acknowledgement can go a long way.
  2. And then we want to make sure that we’re like, can we meet that need? Can we meet that whole need? Can we meet part of that need? And if we’re not able to meet the need at all right, maybe our partner has stuff going on as well.
  3. Maybe tonight or whatever the examples does not work out for them, then that last option is “Hey, can we have a conversation about that need so we can come to an agreement that works for both of us?” We don’t want to leave our partner kind of hanging in that need.



So I hope that that was helpful for all of you. If you have questions, feel free to reach out. I love having conversations with people and I look forward to chatting and speaking with you all later. Bye

Alyssa is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and owner of Relational & Sexual Health initiative. She holds a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and a Sex Therapy Certificate. Alyssa specializes in relationship/couples and sex therapy.  She helps people work towards improved connection within themselves, their relationships, and their sexuality. 


Alyssa is also trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy and Gottman Method Couples Therapy, a systemic approach that helps couples repair/manage conflict and deepen intimacy. She works to help couples create renewed intimacy and emotional experiences with their partners while exploring and making meaning of their relational “dance.” 


Social Media: IG is @rs_healthcounseling 

Facebook: Relational & Sexual Health Initiative, PLLC

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