You are tired of being a floor mat, stepped on all the time. The kids walk all over you. Your colleagues ignore you. Your boss never hears you.
You have decided that you have to learn to speak up. You have tried all sorts of confrontations, but they have become roadblocks to further communication. What else is there? What do you do?
Take the case of your colleague, Dave, who never returns commonly used supplies so that you can find them when you need them:
You could report the situation to your manager. It might work, but it would also perhaps unnecessarily be passing the problem off to someone else to handle. And maybe the manager will be harder on Dave than you want – especially if it is discovered that you were responsible.
You could enlist Dave’s help by saying, “I can’t seem to find the supplies I need.” That’s pretty indirect. Dave may just ignore you again. You’re not disclosing how you feel and how his behavior impacts you, and Dave may not get the message. If he does, he may be insulted by such an indirect attack.
You could continue to say nothing, but in that case, too, you are negating your own feelings and needs. Is the problem likely to happen again?
You could yell at him, “Where were you brought up – in a barn? I can’t find anything after you’re used it!” The problem is that shaming seldom advances the conversation.
Shaming is one of about a dozen patterns of communication that we have identified as roadblocks. These roadblocks tend to cut off communication and risk damaging the relationship – just the opposite of what is needed to solve problems together.
Assuming you wish to continue working with this colleague (or have no choice in the matter), it is wise to find a way to establish or maintain close rapport, which makes it easier to tackle problems when they are encountered.
Besides the roadblocks, using these means that you may be missing the opportunity to get your needs met and maintain a relationship with Dave.
An Alternative Skill: The I-Message
To manage your relationships well, you need to be assertive and honest in sharing your needs and concerns. But, you want to do so in a way that does not provoke the person with whom you have some difficulty. Your goal is to show respect and to encourage this person to listen. You want to convey caring and control.
We suggest that you develop a habit of using an I-message. This is a statement that you make about yourself, how you feel, your concern and what actions have led to these concerns. It is a communication pattern that enables you to speak up about your needs (rather than being passive). It is also a way to identify and share your feelings. Sharing your feelings is often the trigger that influences a person with whom you are speaking to pay attention to your need. The I-message also enables you to state how the situation effects you, which can have a lot of impact.
Unlike the roadblocks which as You-statements, the I-message focuses on you and your needs. You-messages often lead the other person to become defensive. Note how you-statements become roadblocks: “You never return the supplies when you use them,” or “You need better habits,” or “You are thoughtless.” You-messages usually focus on attacking the other person, and, as a result, the primary issue is pushed aside. Instead you might say, “When I go to the supply cabinet and cannot find the XYZ, I’m worried that I may not be able to complete my procedure in a timely way.” In this statement, you have shared your feelings and concerns. It is a good starting point for discussion.
The I-message is effective because the focus is on the issue or concern. The focus is not on the other person. Sharing your feelings can also be effective because it can lead to more trust in the relationship. By sharing, you are willing to look within yourself and take responsibility for your own feelings and needs.
If this is a new pattern of speech, you might find it helpful to break the I-message into three parts: (1) how you, as the speaker, feel, (b) a description of the action that affects you, and (c) an explanation of how the action affects you. You might begin with it as a “script,” saying, “I feel________when you (a non-blameful description of the behavior that is bothering you), because_________.” Usually, the order in which the three parts are expressed is not important. So, for example, “When the materials I need for XYZ are not in their usual spot, I feel frustrated and hurried, because I have to take time to find them.”
Your colleague’s response may help you learn something. For example, your colleague may inform you that he or she is not guilty of not returning the supplies; someone else has been using the supplies. You might, as a result of this exchange, learn that there is a shortage of certain supplies which both of you need regularly. Or, you may learn that, indeed, he is guilty of not returning the supplies but you will also learn that he’s under a lot of pressure, due to a heavy case load.
He may respond with a defensive tone. In this case, ensure him that you are on a learning path – not a path to accuse him or start a debate. Be sure to listen also for what is NOT said. Can you tell how he is feeling?
Respond in a way that will assure him that you are listening. For example, in a non-judgmental tone, say, “I get it. You’re not returning the supplies because you are using them regularly yourself.” Or “It’s not my intent to attack you. I want to find a solution that will work for both of us.”
Try it and let us know how it works for you.
That’s all for today.
Carolyn and John
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