Tip #5–Speak in “I” rather than “You”

Posted on April 16, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

When we want to let someone know that a behavior or attitude of theirs is causing problems for us, using “I” language can help us make our statements without provoking the other person’s defensiveness. Instead of saying “You make me mad,” say “I get mad when …” Instead of saying “You frustrate me when you …,” say, “I become frustrated when you …” Using “I” language helps us take responsibility for our own feelings and responses rather than blaming someone else.


Have you had the experience of feeling attacked verbally by someone “expressing” themselves? Who hasn’t! Criticism of others often takes the form of an attack when the language used in that criticism is “you” focused rather than “I” focused. Consider the examples given in the quote above.


When we make statements like “You make me mad,” we in essence are saying that the person we are angry at has power to control our emotions. Yikes! In reality, no one has power over our emotions but ourselves. When we get mad, we (gulp) are choosing to get mad. We are responding to a situation or set of circumstances in a way that works for us at the time. Using the language that accurately reflects the situation, we should change our response to “I get mad when you do x, y, or z.”


In addition to avoiding language that shifts the power over our emotions to others, we need to consider another effect of using that language: defensiveness. Our typical response to language we hear as an attack is to respond self-defensively because our natural human response is one of either fight or flight. Our goal is to protect ourselves when we are attacked. The problem with this type of response is that communication becomes a battle rather than an exchange of information from which we have the potential to learn.


T o reduce the potential for defensiveness in others, our responsibility as good communicators is to ensure that we are not provoking a defensive response when attempting to convey our message. If someone in my office is doing something that is inhibiting my ability to do my job, my gut reaction may be to attack them to get them to stop. Instead, a better method of communicating to them is to tell them the problem I am having with their behavior or action … and to request a change on their part. Here’s an example:


Valerie, my coworker, takes client files to her desk to work on them. After finishing her work, she keeps the files on her desk rather than returning them to the main storage area. That means when I need a client file and I can’t find it in the main storage area, I then have to hunt for it. This wastes my time and frustrates me–especially since this seems to be a habit of Valerie’s.


Yesterday, I was looking for the Marquad file. I went to the main storage area but couldn’t find it. I hunted around to see if it had been misfiled. Then I started asking questions of my coworkers (there are three of us in the office). After several minutes of all three of us looking for the file, Valerie found it on her desk. This is the third time this week that missing files have been located on Valerie’s desk.


My gut wants to say to Valerie: “Why can’t you put the files back when you’re through with them? You are wasting all of our time by not putting these back.”


If I say this Valerie’s response, most likely, will be one of defensiveness and possibly anger. We work in a small office and need to get along to get our work done. If I attack Valerie the way my gut wants to, I’m going to do some damage to our relationship.


So here’s what I’m going to say instead: “Three times this week, I have gone to the main storage area to get files I need only to find that the files aren’t there. Each time, I’ve then had to interrupt your work and to find the files. When I have to do that, I’m not only wasting my time but your time as well. I get really frustrated when the files I need are not in the main storage area where they should be. I’d appreciate it if–to save all of our time–you’d put the files back when you are done with them.”


Is there a potential that Valerie will still get defensive? Yes, but this time it won’t be because I’ve attacked her. She may get defensive out of a sense of guilt, but she’ll have no cause to be angry at me for how I requested a change in her behavior. The method I used took responsibility for my own responses and communicated to her the negative affect of her behavior on all of us. By doing so, I’ve removed the language that would justify a defensive response on her part.


We can’t guarantee that changing the way we speak will eliminate defensive responses in others, but we can reduce the potential by taking responsibility for how we deliver our messages. And when we do that, the common outcome is a change in the responses we receive.




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