Confronting unacceptable behavior in the workplace (or anywhere) is often uncomfortable. One of the most valuable tools that can be used to increase your odds of a successful conversation about behavior that interferes with your objectives is called an I-Message. Using a well-constructed I-Message allows you to avoid many of the pitfalls of these emotional, uncomfortable but highly necessary conversations.
With an I-Message, you are not making assumptions about the other person’s motives or intentions (stuff you don’t know anything about). They are non-judgmental. They are clear. They give the other person useful information that can be used to make changes in their behavior if they choose to do so. It’s powerful stuff. But like any powerful tool, there are lots of ways to mess up. I know lots of carpenters, gardeners, and mechanics who certainly know how to use their tools but still have the scars to prove that even an expert can hit her thumb with a hammer.
So, a little review of the basic rules and safety procedures is always in order. The same can be said for the communication skills (tools) that leaders use to build healthy, productive working relationships in their teams. So, let’s begin with the I-message. When another’s behavior interferes with your important needs, the I-Message is an appropriate and useful tool to use to clarify the issue and facilitate a constructive conversation about how to solve the problem.
A good I-Message typically has three components (see Leader Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon): a non-blameful description of the behavior, a statement of the concrete and tangible effects, and your feeling (emotion). Easy peasy! Right? Sure! But, not so fast! There are quite a number of “conditions” that may influence the success of your I-Message. A few of them follow along with some sage advice on how to mitigate the risks and enhance your chances of successful outcomes.
Don’t…Precede your I-Message with several hundred you-messages. Let’s say your spouse forgot to pick up the kids after school. The school called you at work to tell you that you are being charged $200.00 (per hour) for making them take care of your kids when they should have been able to close up and go home. If it happens again, they will expel them. So, you leave work early even though you have an important presentation to prepare for. Your boss is really upset. When your spouse finally gets home (two hours later), you say, “You irresponsible, thoughtless, self-centered, jerk. Don’t you ever think about anyone but yourself? And here’s your stupid I-Message. You promised to pick up the kids today but didn’t. I had to leave work early and will have to spend the evening preparing for my presentation. I am really frustrated and angry.” Chances are your spouse won’t even hear the I-Message part. He or she is probably cowering under the bed by now.
Do…Cool off before you start talking. Take some time to think about your I-Message. Write it down. The process of thinking your way through the I-Message sometimes allows you to calm down and gives you a chance to be really clear. Don’t rely on the I-Message to make up for all the damage caused by the you-messages.
Don’t …Let your nonverbal overpower your I-Message. Sending an I-Message (no matter how well constructed) while you are rolling your eyes or standing with your feet planted, your legs apart and your arms folded or shaking your finger or screaming is going to send a much more powerful message than the words in the I-Message. The content will be overshadowed by the context.
Do….Take a little time to calm down. Find a suitable place to have the conversation where you can relax and think clearly. Otherwise, your nonverbal may “take over.”
Don’t…Pick a time when the other person is so hassled and anxious that they won’t be able to listen. Don’t send an I-Message to your co-worker just before they are scheduled for their annual performance review or just before they get into the car to leave for their vacation. They are not likely to really listen at such times and may consider it an act of hostility to “ambush” them at a sensitive time.
Do…Make an effort to create an environment that is suitable for a serious conversation when both parties can be relatively comfortable. Remember, these conversations are never easy even under the best of conditions. Ask the other if it is a good time to talk.
Don’t…Wait until you have enough evidence to overwhelm the other with examples of wrongdoing. Often, we have a tendency collect grievances; hoard examples of “bad” behavior, then pile it all on at once. “And another thing! Furthermore! And while I’m at it!” This is not about “being right” or “making your case.”
Do…Confront as soon as it is feasible and reasonable to do so. Try not to confront about more than one or two issues at a time. It becomes really hard for the other to listen when they start to feel that they are being attacked.
Don’t…Hit and run. Don’t send the I-message then walk away. An important part of the process is to listen to the other’s side of the story. If you lob your I-Message over the wall then run for cover, you sabotage the whole process. The other will not be likely to view you as genuinely trying to find a mutually acceptable solution.
Do…Shift gears. Be prepared to listen to (Use your Active Listening skills.) and acknowledge the other person’s side of the story. Take time to really focus and understand, to the best of your ability, their reasons for doing (or not doing) whatever it is that is interfering with your needs.
Don’t …Sneak up on the other. Don’t just blurt out the I-Message with no warning or prelude, especially if your emotional level is high.
Do…Ask for permission. Let the other know that you have something on your mind that is troubling you and that you would like to talk about it. State your intentions. There is nothing that says you have keep your method a secret. It is O.K. to say, “I have something on my mind and I would like to state it as an I-Message. Is that O.K?”
Don’t…Suck it up. Stuff it. Sit on it. In the spirit of “not rocking the boat” or “not stirring up a hornet’s nest,” we sometimes withhold information about our concerns. That can get us into trouble just as fast or faster than talking about our needs when the time is right. Over time, you may come to resent the other person even though you have never really given them a chance to explain or to change.
Do…Respect the other person enough to believe that, when presented properly, they will listen to what you say and treat it seriously. They may even try to make some sort of change in their behavior. At least, you may have opened the door to do some mutual problem solving.
There are, I am sure, many other considerations but these will surely help you set the stage for a successful confrontation. If your goal is to get your own needs met and to maintain a healthy, adult relationship, and avoid damaging the other person, these rules become very important.
No single tool can do everything, but using well thought out I-Messages under the right conditions, in the right circumstances and with the right intentions, makes a lot of problems go away.