When discussions turn tense, we sometimes offend others unintentionally. Some offenses are very subtle — so subtle that we might be unaware that we've offended our discussion partners, and surprisingly, they might be unaware of it too. If we can avoid these unintentional offenses, discussions might be more relaxed, and we can learn to work together more smoothly.
One class of unintentionally offensive remarks includes statements we make about each other — "you" statements. Often, we're innocently relating our own experiences, judgments, and feelings, but we do so in terms of the other person's actions or character. For instance, we say, "You accused me of forgetting that telecon," instead of "I felt accused of forgetting the telecon."
If we change the
language we use,
we can turn offense
and tension fadesIf we change the language we use, we can turn offense into information, and tension fades. The basic theme is to change "you" statements into "I" statements. Here are some of the "you" statements that can create trouble.
- You're always doing…, you're always saying…, you never do…
- Sentences that begin with these phrases sound like blame, and when we blame the people we're talking to, they often feel attacked. Of course, blame is often the goal, but then the problem isn't the language we use — the problem is the blaming. Blaming hurts. Instead of blaming, try expressing your frustration, and the events that led to it, without reference to any particular person.
- When you do that, I feel…
- This formulation is commonly recommended, and although it's better than many alternatives, we can go further. Try "When I hear that, I feel…" or "Whenever I see that, I feel…" If these alternatives fit, they can be preferable, because they emphasize the statements or actions, rather than the person making or doing them.
- I think that you…
- This is a "you" statement in disguise. Transform it first by removing the disguise — the "I think that" part. Then apply the other methods to what's left.
- You yourself said that…
- Typically, this is an attempt to "catch" our discussion partner in an inconsistency. The big news is that inconsistency isn't news — everyone is inconsistent, including me. It's only through inconsistency that we can change.
- Pointing out inconsistency doesn't work, except in bad drama. It just puts your partner on edge. If all you need is an explanation of the difference between then and now, ask for help or clarification.
Next time you notice tension in a discussion, try "I" statements. Take it easy, though — when we catch ourselves doing something we've decided to stop, we can feel the sting of "should." Recognize the "should," notice its inappropriateness, and look forward to a time when you can celebrate your success in using the new pattern. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- The Fine Art of Quibbling
- We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares
of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can
be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
- Dismissive Gestures: II
- In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've
developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They
hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog
of dismissive gestures.
- Social Safety Margins
- As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have
less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When
are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?
- Stonewalling: II
- Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction. Some less sophisticated tactics rely on misrepresentation to
gum up the works. Those that employ bureaucratic methods are more devious. What can you do about stonewalling?
- Meta-Debate at Work
- Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have
different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.
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