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:
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 22: Dealing with Credit Appropriation
- Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation. Available here and by RSS on August 22.
- And on August 29: Please Reassure Them
- When things go wildly wrong, someone is usually designated to investigate and assess the probability of further trouble. That role can be risky. Here are three guidelines for protecting yourself if that role falls to you. Available here and by RSS on August 29.
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