Sir Isaac Newton once said, “Tact is making a point without making an enemy.” Most of us have worked hard to make a point yet only to stir up an argument or damage a relationship in the process.
One of the best skills I learned years ago at a marriage workshop was how to speak “I” language. It’s a language that’s easy to understand but it takes some effort to become proficient because it’s so counter-intuitive.
I’ve coached several lately in preparation for an upcoming conversation regarding a delicate subject or for how to resolve an ongoing marital conflict. In every case, I’ve casually mentioned a reminder to use I-language with the assumption they knew of it. I’ve been reminded of how few really know this skill.
The Essence Of I-Language
Most conflicts and misunderstandings either start with or quickly move toward blame. “You” language is the language of blame. “You never listen to me!” “You always do that!” “You make me so mad when you say that!”
“You, you, you!”
It doesn’t matter what it is. When you start an emotionally-charged or confrontational conversation with, “You…”, the defensive walls go up. The listener immediately begins to brace himself and posture for a fight. Even if you have a legitimate point, it won’t be made successfully.
The essence of I-language is an appeal, not blame. It’s about communicating your feelings, wants, or needs in a way that allows the other to hear you without being defensive. In doing so—assuming he or she is a reasonable person with some compassion—a person is in a safe position to actually help you as you desire.
Case In Point…
Consider any recent argument you’ve had with your spouse. Perhaps it was something as simple as a husband not fulfilling his wife’s expectation to take out the trash regularly.
She may have a legitimate gripe. Assume they’ve already agreed to this division of labor—he takes out the trash daily, but he seldom does it without being reminded. Her frustration builds after several reminders until she says something like, “Can’t you handle a simple thing like remembering to take out the trash?! You said you would. You don’t have to do much around here and obviously don’t care enough to help me out in even the simplest way!”
Again, probably a valid point. But her point is moot. They’re now in for an argument—and probably a rough night or even couple of days. All because of a bag of trash.
Let’s replay that and substitute I-language.
She says, “Honey, I know you’re willing to help me out as you can. I know it’s unintentional but I have to be honest—I’m having a hard time feeling your support when I have to regularly ask you to take out the trash. I know it may seem like a little thing. But it’s a big thing to me. It would make me feel so good and cared for if I wouldn’t have to ask you to take the trash out. I so appreciate your help and hope you understand.”
That’s making the point without making an enemy. A guy’s going to have to work hard to get upset with that.
A Change Of Heart Is Required
This works in any relationship at home, work, wherever. But it will require a change of heart. It’s not just about words. See your spouse, boss, friend, sibling differently. Expect the best.
It is counter-intuitive. When we are frustrated, angry, feeling disrespected or treated unlovingly, our tendency is to lash out. “You…!” Blame, put them in their place, lecture, scold, shame.
How’s that working for you?
It’s doesn’t work. Instead, shift to your feelings, make it more a challenge you’re having, and an appeal for their help. Believe the best of the other, instead of judging and expecting the worst.
“I know you don’t mean to, but I feel unappreciated/unloved/disrespected whenever you say/do…”. “I’m not feeling trusted lately when you keep checking up on me.” “I know it’s my problem, but I have such a hard time when you make that face while we’re talking. I just need to let you know because I’m having a hard time not over-reacting to it. I’d appreciate any help you can give.”
When others are given the grace and room to make a change with dignity, most will do it quickly and without a fight.
Test this on some troubled spot in your marriage—a subject that has been sensitive in the past and still unresolved. But start by expecting the best of your spouse.
You’ll have many opportunities today and every day that follows to make a point and plead your case. Choose to become proficient at speaking I-language—and make your point without making an enemy.
Question: Where do you find I-language most helpful? Share your answer in the comments below.