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 Advantages of Political Attack: II
- In workplace politics, attackers are often surprisingly successful with even the flimsiest assertions.
Often, they prevail, in part, because they can choose the time and venue for their attacks. They also
have the advantage of preparation. How can targets respond effectively?
- Handling Heat: I
- Heated exchanges in meetings are expensive to both the organizational mission and to the careers of
the meeting's participants. Preventing them — or dealing with them when they happen — is
everyone's job. But what can you do when they persist?
- Dealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
- When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining
to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management
wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
- Overtalking: I
- Overtalking is the practice of using one's own talking to prevent others from talking. It can lead to
hurt feelings and toxic conflict. Why does it happen and what can we do about it?
- Much of what we call backstabbing is actually just straightforward attack — nasty, unethical,
even evil, but not backstabbing. What is backstabbing?
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