What pushed me over the edge to actually write the blog was a terrible customer service interaction at the United counter. I will spare you the details of our holiday travel. We were at the airport to check on our flight status. When we reached the front of the line, I greeted the woman at the counter and said I had a quick question. She actually growled and said, "That's not how it works." I felt myself recoil from her angry tone. I said, "I know you're really busy, I have one short question and then we can get out of your way." She snapped again. I felt myself lose hope. We were off to a very bad start.
The woman at the counter continued to be unnecessarily rude, stubborn, and combative and ultimately I spoke with her supervisor. I am not sure what she had faced before I walked up, but it was clear she was not in a place that moment, day, or possibly year to having a compassionate discussion. I left the counter much more frustrated than when I arrived. I doubt the woman felt god about our interaction. I was so mad.
When my partner sweetly asked, "Whats wrong?" I snapped, "The world would be a happier place if people started with compassion!"
In my practice I have come to see (and the research consistently shows) the basic principles of strong relationships hold true not only in romantic partnerships, but in all relationships. Meaning, the skills and tricks necessary to fortify your marriage aren't actually that different from the ways you can foster a better relationship with your boss, or your daughter. And the way to build these is relatively simple.
The airport counter experience I had is one small example of what John Gottman calls a "harsh startup." According to his research 96% of the time a conversation will end the way it started. So when the woman growled I knew it wasn't going to end well. Luckily, my relationship with the customer service rep was a short one (I hope we don't run into each other again). However, harsh startups can play a critical role in long term relationships. According to Gottman's research, only 40 percent of the time do couples divorce because they are having frequent, devastating fights. More often marriages end because, to avoid constant skirmishes, husband and wife distance themselves so much that their friendship and sense of connection are lost.
Over time negative interactions build up and eat away at the positive regard that has been built between individuals. In his book, The Relationship Cure, Gottman outlines how clearly this applies not only to romantic relationships, but also to colleagues, friends, neighbors, and classmates. For example, I work with a colleague who believes she can determine the kind of day she will have based on the first interaction she has with her boss each morning. On good days her boss greets everyone in the office with a cheerful hello and a 30-second check in about the news and their lives. However, on bad days her boss will walk directly into her office without a greeting and wont speak until there is business at hand. When they do speak, her boss begins by barking orders and questions. These micro-harsh startups impact the assistant's entire day.
So how do you avoid a harsh startup? Here are a few tips:
1. Start with your breath. Take five deep breaths on your own before entering a conversation that could be difficult.
2. Ask yourself, "Is this the best time, place, and manner to have this conversation?" Could it wait? Would it be better if you were alone? If it needs to happen then, thats fine, but if there is a more optimal location or time then plan ahead and make an appointment, or ask your partner to take a walk with your to discuss the topic at a set time.
3. Begin with gratitude. Think of three things you enjoy, respect, or honor in the person you are speaking with. What have they taught you? Keeping these fresh in your mind will help you enter the discussion with greater compassion.
4. Avoid concrete or absolute language and soften your word choice whenever possible. The woman at the counter repeatedly said "That's wrong" to me in the airport. Had she said, "I am sorry you were misinformed, let me see how I can help you sort this out" I would have felt better even if receiving the same end result and information. Try not to speak in either/or and avoid words like always, never, and forever.
5. Take a time out. Don't be afraid to walk away for a minute, gather your thoughts, and take a few deep breaths. Just remember to come back.
6. Ask questions about the other person's experience. Genuinely ask, "How was your day?" "what brought you here today?" etc to assess whats going on for the other person and get a sense of where they are coming from.
Its not foolproof. We all have harsh startups now and again. However, with a little intention and care, I do believe the world would be a happier place if first we start with compassion.