Those of you old enough to remember the no nonsense, Police Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet, will remember that he had little patience for assumptions, theories, conclusions, or interpretations from his witnesses. He wanted “Just the facts.” He believed that the only way to solve a crime was to determine all the facts of the situation first. The same is true of all problems. The first thing to do is to establish the facts.
There are all sorts of really good arguments for using I-Messages rather than You-messages when confronting someone’s unacceptable behavior. They are: less likely to produce defensiveness, more likely to help maintain the relationship, less judgmental, more likely to produce a helpful response. But, perhaps most importantly, they are more accurate. In a very real way, they are true. The three parts of the I-Message (Non-blameful description of the behavior, concrete and tangible effects, feelings) represent the facts of the situation. Everything else is speculation.
I have a colleague who doesn’t respond to my e-mails or return my phone calls. I sometimes have to keep calling until he actually answers the phone himself. I could say to him, “You are inconsiderate.” Or, “I know that you are busy but….” Or, “If you don’t start returning my calls, I am going to come over there and….” (Well, let’s not get into that). I could go to his boss, send warnings, do nothing, etc. But, all of these messages and strategies are based on assumptions and guesses about his intentions and motives. I may believe that he is lazy, or rude, or self-absorbed, or mean spirited, etc. And, I may be right. But, the fact is, I don’t know why he is not responding to my e-mails or returning my calls. I do not have access to what is going on inside his head. He may have serious problems at home that are taking all of his energy. He may be angry with me about something. His manager may have instructed him to ignore me. He may just be swamped with higher priority assignments. Or, maybe he just doesn’t like me. Maybe he has bad news for me and is putting off telling me. Maybe he is doing some research for me and wants to finish it before he calls. Maybe, maybe, maybe! Any one of these interpretations may be right but I don’t know until he tells me.
What I do know is:
• He has not returned my last three e-mails or any of my phone calls this week.
• I am stuck and cannot proceed on this project until I hear from him.
• I am very frustrated.
Those are the facts. That is the truth at this moment. Since I am the one who owns the problem, it is my responsibility to put the facts on the table. My obligation to my colleague is to do this without speculating on his reasons or motives and to give him an opportunity to respond. In other words, I should tell the truth. “Just the facts.”