An interesting question came up during today’s communications class. We were discussing how tense conversations can sometimes become accusatory. What exactly causes defensiveness to enter the picture?
It’s pretty clear that when we say more ‘you-you-you’, the verbal equivalent of pointing a finger at someone, conversation can take a defensive or conflicted tone. So what do we do about it?
Using “I-statements” is a generally accepted way to keep things less confrontational or to redirect when defensiveness rears it’s head. I-statements are less confrontational. Rather than pointing at another’s actions, choices, behaviors, we focus instead of the impact that they have on us.In other words, instead of “you-you-you”, we say “i-i-i”.
For example, instead of saying “you keep saying that…“, try “when I hear this repeatedly, I …“. Or, instead of “you think you’re so smart…“, try “I feel unimportant when…“. Or, instead of “you can’t do that!“, say “I am uncomfortable with …“
Today’s class, however, began to wonder if all that I-talk could begin to sound selfish. Aren’t we taught not to ‘i-i-i’ in order to not sound egotistical? It’s a good point.
Here’s a different way to look at it …
Yes, “i-i-i talk” can be off-putting in daily, social conversation. However, when the tension of conflict sets in, we begin to hear those “you’s” as accusatory, judgmental, even hostile. Most of us will shift gears to a more defensive mode. That shuts down listening and from there, the communication just spirals down. In conflicted conversation, a speaker’s “you-statements” make it less and less likely that a listener will listen. That damages our ability to reach mutual understanding, a hallmark of successful communication.
So, while it’s not great to over-use the “i-word” in happy talk, in conflict, using it instead of the “you-word” can help keep things from getting personal.
It may seem counterintuitive, but ….
When we are in conflict, one of the best things we can do is to stop talking about what the other person is doing and start talking about how we’re doing.
I-statements can help keep a conflicted conversation grounded in care and respect. I-statements:
- Honor the other by not judging, assuming, mind-reading, or hiding from them.
- Give the other person insight into the impact of their behavior and words.
- With that insight, give others an opportunity to shift their behavior and choose another way.
Do I-Statments Always Work?
No. The energy of the conflict may have gotten the best of they other person. They may be too enmeshed in their argument, their point-of-view, or too afraid to let their guard down to take the opportunity to de-escalate and open up. Or, they may feel they have more to gain by staying in the argument, the conflict, than by resolving it (important to learn, if that’s the case).
But, You Don’t Have Anything To Lose
They point the way out of the fighting ring. Sticking with I-statements may help de-escalate the conversation over time or bring it to an end.
I-statements and the de-escalation they bring can also protect your heart, literally. Conflict can bring physical stress based in our survival response. It raises blood pressure, heart rate and other adrenaline/cortosol related responses. It also causes us to hyper-focus on what we perceive to be a threat and lose our capacity to think more expansively, creatively, empathetically, and fluidly.
I-statements coupled with calm breathing enable you to stay focused on your own well-being in a way that keeps you in control. It can minimize the stress and maximize your creative capacity for insight and idea generation.
So, The Next Time You Feel Yourself Sliding Into The Conflict Zone …
Step back, take a breath, and refocus your attention from “you” to “I”; identify how you are feeling and why.
Use that insight to shape I-statements that give conflict a cushion to fail on.