As a lifelong student of communication, I thought I knew a lot about interpersonal communication. But recently, I have come to better understand two extremely important principles for great relationships.
The principles, stated succinctly, may seem obvious and trite. But my new understanding comes not from hearing the principles, but from more fully realizing how beneficial they are — and how difficult they are!
- Know yourself.
- Speak only for yourself.
Knowing ourselves is not as easy as we might think. Countless volumes have been written on the subject. If you are familiar with the field of psychology, you already know some of the obstacles. We humans can deceive ourselves, overlook our own faults, or overlook our strengths. We can project our faults onto others. We can be oblivious to our real motives. We can think we’re dealing with fact, when really we are working with our interpretation.
In their book, Alive and Aware: Improving Communication in Relationships, Sherod Miller, Elam W. Nunnally, and Daniel B. Wackman identify 5 categories for knowing ourselves:
- Our feelings: calm, bored, glad, confused, eager, angry, proud, sad, etc.
- Our actions: Behaviors that may escape our awareness include interrupting others, interrupting ourselves and not finishing our own sentences, saying “like” or “you know” or “um” habitually, chewing our fingernails, reaching for a cigarette, dropping eye contact, changing posture, changing the subject, adopting a certain tone of voice, etc.
- Our intentions: Do we intend to encourage? Persuade? Be funny? Avoid? Criticize? Threaten? Disregard? Explore? Share? Help? Clarify?
- Our sensations: Are we aware of what we actually see, hear, smell, taste and feel?
- Our interpretations: Do we realize how much we interpret what we sense? Here’s an example: Joe’s spouse intends to show love and concern in a comment. But Joe’s past experience with controlling parents leads him to interpret the comment as an attempt to control. Here’s a different example: we see someone walk into a room, stop, and look around. We interpret the behavior as a sign that the person is lost. But that is just our interpretation. We do not really know.
The authors say that we cannot be fully aware of everything at all times. (You’ve no doubt experienced this when you are concentrating on work and you “tune out” background noise.) But they say that healthy individuals are able to be objectively aware of themselves within all five categories on a regular basis, rotating from one area to another as the situation demands.
Healthy individuals are able to self-reflect – access their feelings and understand their own motives, even the “negative ones,” the ones that society frowns upon. Wounded individuals can lose awareness in one or more areas (and we are all wounded to some degree). And so awareness can be a continual challenge for all of us. And, as the saying goes, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” That is one reason why input from others is so valuable.
The second principle, speaking only for ourselves, is also more difficult than we imagine. I just violated the principle in this last sentence. If I were following the principle, I might write, “I believe that speaking only for ourselves is also more difficult that we imagine.” Or, “I don’t know about you, but speaking only for myself is more difficult than I had imagined.” The fact is, I don’t know what your experience is. I am, of course, just trying to make a general statement about a whole population. When we have a lengthy communication that is designed to teach, we tend to drop “I think” or “I believe,” because it becomes repetitive and everyone understands that the whole message is offering generalized truth based upon (we hope) research.
But interpersonal communication within relationships, both at work and at home, benefits from careful adherence to the principle.
One red flag occurs when we start a sentence with “you” rather than “I.” “You should finish this job” is more effective if we say, “I would like you to finish this job.”
The question, “Would you like to go to a movie with me?” might really mean, “I would like you to go to a movie with me.” If that’s what we mean, we should say that, because there could be a significant difference between the two. Say a wife asks the question above. Her husband may feel legitimately confused. Is he merely being asked about his preferences? Or is he being asked to lovingly accommodate his wife’s preferences? Let’s say her meaning is that she would like him to accommodate her desire. So she should say some version of, “I’d like you to go to a movie with me.” Good communication will provide the clarification and help the husband, in this case, meet his wife’s needs for companionship.
Here’s another example: “You’re not listening to me!” is more likely to cause defensiveness and arguments because it is a blaming statement. “I don’t feel listened to right now” is an indisputable fact that you own. If that’s how you feel, then that’s how you feel. No one can tell you how you feel (though some boundary-crossers will try!). So the question becomes, what can the other person do to help you feel more listened to?
Speaking for ourselves with “I statements” helps to bypass arguments and move to solutions.
I hope you can now see that the biggest challenge for many of us is that we were never trained to speak in “I statements.” We’re more likely, in the example above, to say, “You’re not listening to me.”
For many of us, using “I statements” is like learning a foreign language. And so we must train ourselves in this new two-step process:
- becoming aware of what we are really thinking, feeling, and wanting, and then
- expressing that clearly.
It’s a matter of working hard to change daily habits. The benefits include more harmonious relationships at work and at home, less confusion and conflict, greater productivity, and much more. Perhaps you’d like to run a test, and see how long you can stick with “I-statements” in a given day!
© 2013 Caryl D. Schlicher A Bridge To Excellence
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