The Small Shift in Communication That Can Make a Big Difference


“What do you want to eat for dinner?”
“It doesn’t matter to me, what do you want?”
“Mexican food?”
“I’m not in the mood for that.”
“We just had pizza.”
“Well what do you want?!”
“I don’t know…”

Sound familiar? This typical conversation about what to eat for dinner illustrates the fact that, often, we are more aware of what we don’t want than what we do want.

The same is true when addressing a source of conflict in marriage. It’s easy to identify and verbalize what we don’t want, rather than stating what we do want. The problem with this is that our communication comes off as criticism or complaining, even though what we really mean to do is communicate a need or desire that is not being fulfilled.

Speak What You Want, Not What You Don’t Want

We can all agree that when we feel criticized or attacked by someone, it is way too easy to throw up our defenses. It becomes even more difficult to understand what that person wants from you, and this can quickly turn into escalated conflict, inflicted wounds, more misunderstanding, and further unmet needs.

The truth is, we are more likely to have our needs and wants met when we start off by speaking what we want, rather than what we don’t want.

Transform Your Complaint Into a Positive Need

Consider these two approaches:

“How come you never empty the dishwasher?! You are always leaving it for me to empty, and you never consider how tired I might be at the end of the day.”


“I wish I didn’t feel so tired at the end of the day. I would love it if we could relax and unwind together in the evenings rather than having to catch up on chores. Would you mind helping me out by emptying the dishwasher a few nights a week? I would really appreciate it, because it would free up more time for me to spend with you at the end of the night.”

If someone were addressing this with you, which approach would you be more receptive to?

The Gottman Institute calls this an act of transforming a complaint (an unemptied dishwasher) into a positive need (more quality time together) and states, “By expressing your desire in a direct, gentle, and neutral way, it is much more likely that your wish will come true.”

A Positive Start Paves the Way for a Positive Outcome

Research shows that if a conversation begins poorly, it will end poorly 96% of the time. This means that how a conversation starts often determines how it will end. When you take the time to prepare a positive, gentle approach to your conversations, you are more likely to reach a positive and gentle conclusion.

So, next time you want to address something that is bothering you, take time to consider what it is you want and speak to that. This can save a lot of time in resolving conflict and in many cases may actually prevent conflict.

[This post was originally published by on 4/12/18]

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. ~ Proverbs 12:18

Don’t ever diminish the power of words. Words move hearts and hearts move limbs. ~Hamza Yusuf

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  ~ Proverbs 15:1

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.    ~ Ephesians 4:29

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