How to Shift Gears When You’re Stalled

By Linda Adams, President of GTI

In the last column, I discussed assertive skills–and specifically those we use when the other person’s behavior creates a problem for us. Learning to talk to other people using I-Messages* requires courage–we take the risk that they will react with anger, hurt, denial or at the least, discomfort because they don’t want to hear that we have a problem that involves them.

You will almost always defeat your purpose if you continue to repeat your I-Message when the other person reacts negatively to it. Doing so puts others even more on the defensive and stiffens their negative reaction. What comes across from you is: “This is what I want or need, regardless of how you feel about it.”

To increase the chances that the other person will hear your I-Message, you’ll need to listen with empathy and acknowledge his/her upset feelings. This willingness to be sensitive to the other’s feelings and concerns is often the key to allowing them to truly hear your need. Let me say that again: the likelihood that the other person will hear you and change their behavior is far greater when you Active Listen their concern.

So as soon as you become aware that your I-Message has created a problem for the other person, you’ll want to “shift gears” from talking to listening. Your posture now is one of responding instead of initiating. You now want to be sensitive to the other’s feelings. You want to show concern and a genuine desire to understand their needs. Now this is what they hear from you: “Here’s what I need. But I’m willing to stop and listen to you because I value our relationship and respect how you feel.”

This temporary shift to the other person’s concern sets up a conciliatory atmosphere. It’s a powerful communicator of your sensitivity to, and interest in them. It lets them know that you’re not out to get your needs met at their expense. Shifting gears does not mean that you abandon your own needs or convictions. It does mean you recognize that dealing with the other’s concern is an integral and indispensable step in getting your own needs met; that you value the other person and are interested in their needs and feelings as well.

Often, shifting gears to Active Listening once is enough to help the other person vent their upset feelings. At other times you may find it necessary to shift back and forth from disclosing to listening several times. When the other person feels heard and accepted, the chances are much greater that they will then be able to hear and accept your original I-Message and be willing to modify their behavior.

Another possible outcome is that you understand the other person better or find out something you weren’t aware of. New information may cause you to modify your initial I-Message. It may also make clear the existence of a conflict between you which when acknowledged can then lead to finding a mutually acceptable solution.

*I-Messages (often known or referred to as “I-statements”) were developed by Gordon Training International’s founder, Dr. Gordon. This skill is taught in all Gordon Training International programs for the workplace, family and school.