How to Speak Up Without Damaging Your Relationships

Man at computer in a meeting from homeWe find ourselves trying to cope with others in a very stressful environment. No matter if you’re on a Zoom or Skype call with a colleague, juggling home schooling, feeding kids or just trying to take care of yourself, relationship issues come up and they need to be addressed—sooner rather than later.

So, let’s first talk about a skill that can help you bring up issues to people in a clear, respectful way.  A skill might elicit some defensiveness, but that hopefully won’t make the other person erupt.

And it’s hard to confront well, period. Harder still when you feel stressed out. And these are the times when communication skills are really put to the test. And if you don’t handle it well, things can get ugly.

People in a conflict have a better chance of finding a solution if they can express their thoughts and feelings in a clear, direct, non-blameful way.

It’s important for people to take responsibility for their own thoughts, needs and feelings and learn how to express them to others, both to prevent problems from developing and to solve conflicts which have already developed.

Self-disclosure is information about you. It explains how things are for you. It expresses your genuine thoughts and feelings. When you are self-disclosing, you don’t tell others what they should or shouldn’t do.

The reason self-disclosure is so important in conflict resolution is that the two parties in the conflict learn how the other person feels—how the situation appears from the other person’s point of view; the other person’s side of the story. They’re the opposite of “You-Messages”. They are first person, singular.

The three-part Confrontive I-Message is a very important skill in conflict resolution. When you communicate your thoughts, feelings and needs with I-Messages, you take responsibility for them:

  • I-Messages let the other person know what’s going on with you and that you need their help.
  • They don’t blame or put down the other person or tell him/ her what to do (there’s no solution in an I-Message)
  • An important I-Message skill is describing the unacceptable behavior of the other person or the unacceptable situation without blaming him/her.
  • The other’s behavior is only what you can see, hear, smell, or feel.
  • Another person’s attitudes, inner feelings, thoughts and motives are not behaviors, because you can’t directly observe them.
  • You can only guess about another person’s attitudes, feelings, thoughts, and motives. Such guesses are never completely right and often they are very wrong. Let’s call them labels.
  • People tend to get defensive when they feel judged or analyzed by labels.

When people get defensive, arguments and fights can start and conflicts often don’t get resolved. This is why it’s essential to utilize another skill called Shifting Gears when you see that your I-Message troubled the other person. Even the best I-Message in the world can cause the other person to become upset—after all, you’ve essentially just given them unsolicited feedback, right? So to keep the conversation going, to acknowledge the other person’s side of the story, you need to shift gears to Active Listening. And when they feel heard, get back to your confrontation—there could be a few minutes of shifting gears before: 1. They agree to stop doing whatever it is that’s preventing a need of yours being met or 2. They don’t see why they should stop and you move into problem-solving.

If you don’t send I-Messages and Shift Gears, where will that lead you, what will that do to your relationship(s)?

Remember the first line of the Credo for My Relationships by Dr. Gordon, “You and I are in a relationship which I value and want to keep.” Whether it’s a family or work relationship, they have value to you and right now, we need to work harder than ever to keep them healthy and strong.

Want to dive a little deeper into I-Messages and Shifting Gears? Here are a few more resources for you:

Working Together with I-Messages (blog)

Example of Confrontive I-Message (video)

Wikipedia page on I-Messages

What is Shifting Gears? (video)

Helpful Tips for Shifting Gears More Smoothly (blog)

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