“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing.”
— Rollo May
There will be times when we need to address a conflict with another person. Their actions and our needs will not always line up. That is an inevitable part of every relationship. How we address it will determine whether such conflict does harm to the bond of relationship or strengthens it through improved understanding.
Some communication repels us; being talked down to, aggressed upon, dismissed, manipulated, belittled, judged, made to feel guilty, or shamed. In such moments, it is instinctive for us to protect ourselves, to push back. We feel less motivated to extend our understanding to such a speaker.
Alternatively, we can feel compassion and openness when someone speaks to us of their experience and helping us to understand our impact upon them without entangling us or making us responsible for their emotional well-being.
Doesn’t it make sense that we would wish to train ourselves to use language in a manner that is more effective at compelling others to better understand us?
This article includes an explanation of these two different types of communication — blaming vs vulnerable — and identify effective ways to express our needs to a spouse or life partner, a colleague, a customer, or a neighbour. We’ll explore how to address conflict and, if the other party is willing, to resolve it. And, yes, there is a time for responsible boundary-setting. We’ll consider that as well.
Blame is Codependent by definition; the belief that one’s happiness depends upon what others do (or do not do). Blame is the expression of such a belief.
What makes a statement blaming? In general, it focuses on the other person as being incorrect and fails to reveal how we are affected, our own underlying fears and sadness. We may use direct, overt blaming statements; “That’s wrong / You’ve really messed things up.” The focus is rigidly held on the error of the other person. Or we may adopt a passive-aggressive tone of injustice; “Look what you did to me!” In doing so, we fail to take responsibility for our own happiness. There is an unconscious pay-off or validation when others’ acts can be identified that contribute to our misery.
Someone speaking blame — particularly if they feel victimized — may be confused by the suggestion that they are not expressing vulnerability. They certainly feel vulnerable. The problem is simply that they have learned to communicate without revealing that.
Vulnerability in Communication
Why is it necessary to express vulnerability? Because we are affected by the actions of others. That is what is important to communicate with them in times of conflict.
An I-statement turns the focus around. Instead of holding a spotlight on the actions of another person, creating defensiveness and inviting a rebuttal, it makes one’s own struggle — the impact of what is happening upon oneself — clear. That is, after all, the real issue.
An I-statement does more than simply add the pronoun ‘I’ to a statement, or even to add vulnerable emotions, if the focus remains on the behavior of the other. The following statements, for instance, only hint at vulnerability: “I feel sad because you were rude,” or “I am worried that you don’t know what you’re doing.”
No, an effective I-statement must replace judgment or criticism of the other person’s action (which is debatable and typically creates defensiveness) with an emphasis on the impact of the situation upon ourself. We can revised the preceding two statements, for instance, by adding vulnerability — possibly as follows, “I am sad because I was hoping for an enjoyable evening together and we argued instead,” or “I am worried that I’ll be late for my meeting if we don’t get going soon.”
What’s the benefit of speaking this way? Vulnerable and non-blaming communication incorporates all three principles of co-empowerment: self-responsibility, understanding, and respect for differences that exist between us. The person hearing the communication will be less likely to experience defensiveness — there is no need for them to — and more likely to want to support or assure us.
You can learn to change your communication in this manner by just following a few simple principles.
- Keep the reference to what the other person has done brief and objective. They should be able to agree with that point. For example, “When you left today before we had a chance to talk …”, or “When you invited your friend to join us for dinner…”
This point shouldn’t be controversial. If the other person disagrees and begins to argue with you at this point, they won’t hear the rest of what you have to say, the impact upon you. And that is the most important point to be heard.
If you’re referring to something the person said, check it out first to make sure what you heard agrees with their memory; “Do you recall saying that the service was poor?”
- Do not use criticism, sarcasm, mind-reading (“You did this because…”), global statements (“You always”… or “You never…”), raise your voice, nor adopt an aggressive tone or any other style of communication that expresses judgment or contempt.
Also, do not voice anger. A healthy choice when emotions are escalating is to take space from the problem. Anger is not a good starting point to resolve a conflict in a mutually beneficial way.
- Instead, express your vulnerable thoughts and feelings. Simply put, how does the issue affect you?
Here are some examples:
- “I am sad (feeling) because I was looking forward to spending some time with you this weekend and now we can’t (thought).”
- “I worry (feeling) because I don’t know yet who will look after my mother next week when I’m away (thought).”
- “I’m sad (feeling) because I learned that my application was not accepted (thought).”
- “I am anxious (feeling) about the price and whether or not we can afford it (thought).”
There are many synonyms for vulnerable emotions; sadness may also be discouraged or embarrassed. Anxiety and worry can also be expressed as concern, alarm, fearful, terrified, or doubtful.
And of course there are always some exceptions to the rule. What feels vulnerable does not always sound vulnerable. Watch these traps, for instance:
- Avoid using the word ‘hurt’. To say ‘I feel hurt…’ implies ‘You hurt me’ which is really an accusation. Try ‘sad’ and see if it fits, sticking to the points above. Sadness is for your own need, for a hope you held that wasn’t realized or something you appreciated that came to an end.
- Avoid using the word ‘disappointed’. While it usually refers to sadness, it may also be camouflage for judgment, recognizable if you begin a statement with the words, “I’m disappointed in you for…” Again, try ‘sad’ instead and see if it fits.
Culture and Context
Of course, there are situations in which it may not be appropriate to express vulnerability. When and where to express vulnerability vary by culture and context.
In the workplace it is rare that the overt expression of a vulnerable emotion is encouraged, though the principles remain effective nonetheless. It may be more effective, for instance, to say, “When you deliver the report to me late, the entire team is held up and the project suffers. I need you to alert me ahead of time if there is a foreseeable delay,” rather than launch into a criticism of the person’s performance and ability. This is an example of an Assertive Statement, one that expresses the impact of another person’s actions (without naming the vulnerable emotion) and asserts a need.
Finally, there are circumstances where a boundary must be set if you have reason to believe the other person may not be thoughtful of your needs, such as the need for your own physical or emotional well-being.
It is important in setting boundaries to avoid mind-reading. You do not know why the other person is acting the way they are, so don’t leap to a conclusion. Accusations simply create defensiveness, as we discussed above, so we still need to avoid criticism.
A boundary statement simply and clearly asserts your own need in a situation with the words, I’m not okay with…
For example, “I’m not okay with yelling. I want to hear what you need but I can’t hear what you’re saying if our voices are raised.”
Do not change this to the absolute statement, “It’s not okay…,” because that may spark a debate. What is not okay for one person may be perfectly fine for another. Who is to say that yelling, for instance, is not acceptable while being withdrawn or passive is? Again, cultural and contextual differences may come into play. By owning this as your own boundary “I’m not okay with…,” you are expressing simply what your boundary is. That is not negotiable. Others may like or dislike your boundary, but they cannot argue with it.
Here is another important point to remember. The other person may not hear your boundary the first time you express it, particularly if they’re caught up in their emotions. So you may need to repeat yourself. There are two keys to using Broken Record technique. First, shorten your comment each time, repeating just the actual boundary (To repeat, I’m not okay with yelling). Next, if you need to repeat your boundary a third time, end the discussion or interaction in that moment with an offer to try again later (As I have said, I’m not okay with yelling. So I need to end this discussion now. I’ll be glad to talk with you again about this later if we can do so without raising voices) and at that point calmly walking away.
So remember, when the outcome of a discussion with another person goes contrary to your hopes, stop and consider which method of communication to choose; blaming or vulnerable. Next month, in the final blog in this Emotional Intelligence series, we’ll explore the subject of Listening, the receptive side to effective communication.