Conversational Intelligence

When to break the rules to make better connections

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I admit it. I’ve never been very good at following the rules… especially when the rules don’t make sense or aren’t producing the desired results.

Much of my corporate career was spent as an interpersonal communication skills “expert.” My job was to help executives, managers, and professionals, most of them highly technical or task-oriented, to develop their people skills — because their effectiveness, promotability, and maybe even keeping their jobs, depended on it.

So I fully embraced, taught, and modeled “the rules” of good interpersonal communication skills.

Rule #1: Communicate With “I” Statements

Every good communicator knows that an effective interaction starts with an “I” statement, as opposed to a “you” statement.

SAY THIS: “I was concerned when you weren’t here at 8:30 AM for our meeting. I was afraid we might miss our deadline. Can you make a point to be here on time for these meetings?”

NOT THAT: “You were late for our meeting, and we almost missed our deadline, thanks to you. You need to take some responsibility and start getting here on time!”

Want to increase your chances of immediately alienating someone? Start with a “you” statement, which tends to put people on the defensive or likely to feel really resentful.

The amygdala gets fired up, the “fear” hormone cortisol floods the body, and all your listener is really thinking about is how to protect themselves from you. The prefrontal cortex shuts down, so it’s hard to think clearly and rationally — you’ll pretty much have your listener on automatic, coming straight from their instincts, right?

The beauty of “I” statements is they increase your chances of (a) being heard and (b) getting what you want. Why? Because you’re not interpreting or adding to what the person is saying or doing.

You’re simply (1) describing what they said or did, (2) what you interpreted their behavior to mean, (3) how you felt about their behavior, and (4) what you’d like them to do differently. No shame, no blame.

SAY THIS: “When I noticed you didn’t pick up the dry cleaning, I felt really irritated. I wondered if you don’t care how busy I am right now. I’d really appreciate it if you help pick up the slack around here for a few weeks.”

NOT THAT: “You forgot the dry cleaning? Do you have any idea how busy I am right now? You know, I could really use some help around here!”

When The Rules Break Down

The day I began to seriously question the rules happened after I had transitioned to private practice. I was helping a client, who was a therapist herself, prepare to confront one of her colleagues. As we practiced how she would do this, I observed that her perfectly worded “I” statements began to sound alarmingly like … psychobabble. As she continued, I noticed I felt totally disconnected, even put off.

What was going on? I realized that when you focus too much on the script, you begin to sound … scripted. Fake. Phony. Not to be trusted.

But the whole point is to be “emotionally and energetically” connected to the other person, right? That’s the intention of using “I” statements in the first place. This connection must happen before effective communication can begin. Without that connection, productive communication is not able to flow between the two people… no matter how perfectly scripted the words.

I asked my client if I could talk to some other part of her that was less “psychological,” more of a “straight talker.” What emerged was a part of her that we begin to refer to as “real” — a part of her that was able to be direct about the problem and yet somehow felt more emotionally available and connected to me.

Suddenly I understood why I see so many people “trying” to communicate, thinking they’re doing it “right” and wondering why it’s not working.

How To Break The Rules:

Does this mean “I” statements don’t work and we should simply revert to attacking, shaming, and blaming our spouses, colleagues, and clients? Hardly. As usual, the solution is more complex, challenging, and involves the “V” word – vulnerability – specifically, how to help ourselves feel safe enough to risk being vulnerable with another human being.

“I” statements ask you to reveal yourself – what you observed, how you interpreted it, how you felt about it, and what you want instead – to the other person. I’d call that a sure ticket to making yourself vulnerable to possible embarrassment, ridicule, misunderstanding, or even humiliation.

Who in their right mind would want to take that risk without feeling a palpable connection to their listener? Some sense that it was safe enough to take the chance?

A great way to avoid the whole feeling vulnerable thing is to fake it. That’s what my client was doing. She was trying to look and sound like she was present and connected – but she was actually hiding her feelings behind an artificial form of communication. She was following the “form” of the script, but not the “spirit” of it. When she got connected to the “real” part of herself, she did a very nice job of integrating two opposites — how to be direct and dispassionate while maintaining a good emotional connection. (That’s the complex, challenging part I mentioned earlier.)

If your “I” statements and other active listening techniques aren’t working, you may want to explore if you’re using them to hide your vulnerability, not reveal it. Don’t judge yourself. It’s perfectly understandable, just not very effective. You keep yourself safe, but lose the chance to connect with someone about something that’s important to you.

Talking about your feelings, which is an intellectual exercise, is a whole different animal from feeling your feelings and revealing them to another person. Can you sense the difference in those two descriptions?

My recommendation? Keep using good, solid communications techniques with the intention to be more connected and present, in this order: (1) first with yourself, and (2) then with others.

Then maybe your friends and family won’t have to wonder if you’ve gone to some workshop or you’ve been reading a self-help book — and wonder when you’ll be back to normal.

Talking about your feelings, which is an intellectual exercise, is a whole different animal from feeling your feelings and revealing them to another person.

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