Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 6;   February 5, 2003:

You and I

by

In tense discussions, the language we use often contributes to the tension. If we can transform the statements we make about each other into statements about ourselves, we can eliminate an important source of tension and stress.
A debate between elephants

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
into information
and tension fades
If 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Games for Meetings: I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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See also Conflict Management and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

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