A harsh startup occurs when a discussion starts with a critical, sarcastic, or contemptuous tone.
William Smith wrote these words in How the Other Half Lives [Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2010 p. 107], referring to John Gottman’s research into what strengthens and what weakens marriage relationships. The gist of it: a negative beginning leads to a negative outcome. Resolving conflicts and keeping a positive relationship rely on partners approaching differences of opinion with affection and respect. It makes sense that this applies to all kinds of situations and relationships – positive regard for others, even when there is disagreement and conflict, fosters progress and preserves the dignity of everyone involved.
Why is it so hard to approach disagreement with respect for the person on the other side of the issue? Why is it so easy to move from disagreement to personal attack, especially since it doesn’t end well for anyone involved? Avoiding the harsh startup makes so much sense, but it can be difficult to do when discussing important points of disagreement and conflict.
I’d like to say that I never begin discussions with my husband, family, friends, and acquaintances with a harsh startup, but I can’t. Just a few days back, I opened with harsh words in a discussion about what kind of car to buy and where to buy it. This wasn’t exactly a life-or-death issue, just a question about a possible auto purchase. Fortunately, neither of us chose to continue down a dark verbal path because of my thoughtless words.
Gottman wasn’t the first person to realize that cutting remarks lead nowhere good for anyone. Sarcasm didn’t start with my generation and contempt has been around for thousands of years. But so has the solution, and it was vital enough to be included in our sacred writings:
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1, NRSV
[For more on Gottman’s research in marriage studies, see Gottman, J. and Silver, N.; The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004). For more on this subject by William Smith, see Fredrickson, J and Smith, W; How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses & partners (Cleveland: The Pilbrim Press, 2010), chapter six]