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Transforming Conflict: Replacing Blaming “You”s with Tactfully Assertive “I”s

During a Practice Safe Stress and Team Building workshop for legal assistants and support staff of a major law firm, a paralegal, with an edge in his voice, recalled a frustrating encounter with one of the firm’s partners. Apparently, misinformation or a misunderstanding led to a project being mishandled and an important deadline being missed. The paralegal, in response to perceived one-sided criticism, counterpunched: “It’s not my fault…you didn’t give me the right instructions.”

Now I can practically hear some in the reading audience saying, “You go guy!” And while our heart may be momentarily appeased, I’m not sure the head has been most effectively engaged. Actually, in conflict situations, the most effective communication invariably blends both head and heart. For when the two aren’t working together, it’s easy to succumb to blaming “You” messages, for example, ”You didn’t give me the right instructions.”

Even if the partner didn’t provide the necessary information, our paralegal’s blaming “you” blast basically is imitating the attorney’s initial adversarial thrust. And too often, when only fighting fire with fire, both parties get burned. (And as the partner usually has the bigger flame- and blame-thrower, it’s rarely a fair fight. It’s pretty predictable who winds up with the lasting scars.)

Self-Defeating “You”s

There are other problems when arguing with finger-pointing “You”s. (And, for the moment, I’m not referring to the proverbial finger.) Let me count the misguided ways:

1. Defensive Habit. A pattern of blaming messages means you are into “acc-you-sations.” It’s fair to ask: “Are you a becoming a “Blameaholic?” Not only are you attempting to put others on the defensive. But there’s another problematic dynamic. While believing you are standing up for yourself, many will see such overreaction as evidence of being too thin-skinned; you aren’t able to stand the firm’s high demand, high standards (at least for some) or pressure climate.

2. Power Transfusion. By solely blaming another for a problem or for compromised performance you are forsaking your “Authority, Autonomy and Accountability” – what I call the “Triple ‘A’ of Personal/Professional Responsibility.” In actuality, you are accepting that the other party has all the power to define your competency, your identity and the problem-solving dynamics of a situation. (Of course, when dealing with contemporary conflicts, unresolved, still painful psychological issues with parental or other significant authority figures heighten feeling hurt and your emotional defensiveness or reactivity.) Some people become defensive by too quickly seeing the provocative interaction as an issue of respect. I think the words of the universally admired first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, have much relevance: “No one can take away your self-respect without your active participation.”

3. Power Struggle. Unless you are dealing with a person who is submissive or passive or, conversely, a truly mature professional (who will respond, not lash out when verbally attacked), your blaming reaction likely fuels a mutual cycle of invective and incrimination. Now the drive becomes who is right, who will back down, or who’s in control. (I can’t help recall the words of French novelist, Andre Gide, from his book, The Immoralist: “One must allow others to be right…it consoles them for not being anything else!”)

And even if you momentarily get a non-assertive person to back down, don’t be surprised if that passivity eventually turns into a getting even “passive-aggressive” underhandedness: “Oh I’m sorry, I guess it is the third time this week that I forgot to give you that report.”

Assertive “I” Messages

So how do you replace blaming “You” messages with appropriately assertive “I” messages? First, let me highlight the importance of making this shift through a “two word” example. Say you are in a heated argument with a colleague, perhaps related to politics or whether the “e” in email often stands for “escaping” face-to-face communication. You’ve been making several thoughtful arguments but the other party is dismissive or just gives you a blank, “whatever” stare. Finally, in a state of frustration you blurt out, “You’re wrong” or, with greater poise, declare, “I disagree.” Those two words make quite a difference. The former basically tries to invalidate the other person, not just the argument. By definition, “I disagree” acknowledges the other person’s position, even if there is disagreement.

There are three dynamics infusing “I” messages with positive energy. Empathically assertive “I”s:

a) convey respect; it’s a more adult-to-adult as opposed to a one up vs. one down style of communicating and relating
b) openly state a position or a feeling, e.g., what I like or don’t appreciate, what I’m concerned about, what I fear, what I expect, etc. and
c) take responsibility for one’s actions or balance self-responsibility and situational factors or consequences

With this conceptual and communicational foundation, how might our aforementioned paralegal handle that adversarial partner? Consider these “Tactfully Assertive Steps for Disarming a Critical Aggressor”:

1. Gut Check. To forestall a defensive (or offensive) reaction the proverbial wisdom has been to “count to ten.” For me that just delays the message. When feeling attacked you need to resist blurting out and do some quick reading of head and heart. What are your thoughts and, especially, what are you feeling? And especially, if starting with a “You,” such as, “You didn’t give me…” hit pause and process before engaging the play button. In other words, “Count to ten and check within!”

2. Take Some Responsibility, Show Some Empathy and Preserve Integrity. Acknowledging responsibility doesn’t mean accepting all of the blame. However, it does entail recognizing that a problem has arisen or an error has been made. For example, one might say, “This was my understanding of the instructions. Obviously, I wasn’t on your page.” While in some circumstances it might be acceptable to note, “I guess we weren’t on the same page,” with a frustrated authority I’d take the first approach. You don’t have to say, “I guess I screwed up,” but you may want to let the other party know you understand why he or she is upset, for example by overtly verbalizing some consequences of message sent not being message received. While not a guarantee, sometimes by taking the self-responsibility initiative, it frees up the other person to acknowledge his part in the problem. This is more likely to happen if you allow the other party to express some anger as you are acknowledging confusion or a mistake.

However, if the other person is not just expressing anger, but is being abusive, then you may have to say with conviction, “I’m sorry for whatever part I have played in this problem, but I will not accept such an attack.” If the party does not show some self-control, then inform your antagonist that you will call again in a defined period of time, when, hopefully, there can be a professional discussion. (Sometimes you may need a third party as a conflict mediator.) You also may have to report such an encounter to a firm authority, e,g, Paralegal Administrator, HR Director, etc. If the problem persists and management won’t address the firm bully, alas, you should be upgrading your resume. Of course it’s not fair…)

3. Ask a Humble Question. To soothe troubled egos, sometimes a “You” message when part of a question is just what the doctor ordered. If both parties are evincing a professional and respectful manner, you may want to simply ask, “How can I make this right?” or “What will help you feel we are back on track?” Not only are you showing some contrition, but also are willing to serve. Finally, asking someone’s opinion or asking for guidance says, “I don’t have all the answers” and “I value your experience, expertise, perspective, etc.” And as Ernest Becker, 20th century sociologist and philosopher noted, the strongest human desire is the desire to feel important.

Hopefully, an extended examination of this law firm encounter has created a better appreciation of the dangers in using reactive “you” messages and the productive potential when blending empathy and assertion as part of a responsive and responsible “I” message. Not only will these tools and techniques assist you in finding the pass in the communicational impasse, but such verbal and psychological fluency will also help you…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and "Motivational Humorist" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits and is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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