A16 Effective Communication: How to communicate more effectively through I-messages and Active Listening

A. INEFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION

Most of us are rather ineffective in expressing our needs and solving our interpersonal problems. We either tend to withhold and suppress our feelings or we go to the other extreme of exploding onto the other person blaming him for our unhappiness. When we do not express our needs and feelings, we tend to become tense, bitter, negative, and feel alienated and resentful towards the person or situation which we feel is responsible for not fulfilling our needs and expectations. This creates internal tension which can result in illness of all types. At the same time we close ourselves from the world around us, feeling lonely and misunderstood. But, have we adequately expressed our needs, desires and expectations so that the others can clearly understand them and take them into consideration? If not, then we are clearly responsible for the situation we find ourselves in. The other way in which people handle their frustrated needs, desires and expectations is to throw the blame for their discontent onto the others. They blame the others, demean them, criticise them for their faults, and generally create a hostile environment which leads to much unhappiness and no one’s needs being fulfilled. Power games are played and each tries to force the other into complying to his own expectations. Both the non-assertive and the aggressive methods of handling interpersonal problems are obviously rather ineffective in most situations. There is a third possible solution which is expressed by Dr. Thomas Gordon in his books “Parents Effectiveness Training” and “Teachers Effectiveness Training”, and by his wife Linda Adams in “Effectiveness Training For Women”. We shall briefly describe these concepts in this chapter. Those who would like more details can refer to these or many other books which have been written about this subject in the last hears. The first step in solving any problem is to understand clearly what exactly the problem is and who «owns» the problem. This is not always as clear as it seems. For example a mother may believe that her child has a problem in that the child does not clean his room or does not do well in school. The reality may be that the child is quite happy with his room and satisfied with his marks. His only problem may be that he doesn’t like his mother nagging him about these things. So in reality the mother has the original problem and not the child. Her needs for neatness and for her child to «succeed» according to her socially programmed expectations are not being fulfilled. Perhaps she cannot accept the child’s school performance because she believes that it is a reflection of her failure as a mother, or perhaps because she fears that he will have problems later in life, or perhaps a little of both. The problem is clearly hers. The child may also have a problem. But what the mother thought to be the child’s problem was obviously her own problem. But if she tries to solve it, as if it is the child’s problem, by giving the child the message that he is not okay, then he most likely will react against negatively and not comply with his mother’s wishes; simply because she has not clearly expressed them. She has blamed the child and told him that he is not okay (either silently or verbally), but she has not understood and communicated that the problem is hers. This is the proper moment for an important part of effective communication: an I-MESSAGE. An I-message is a clear assertive expression of what a person is really feeling,thinking and needing. In this message he takes responsibility for how he feels and without blaming the other person for that.

B. I-MESSAGES

For example, rather than blaming the child, or suppressing her discontent, the mother could sit down with the child and explain to him her programming. (If the reader is not familiar with the depth of the meaning of the word programming, and has not read the first volume of this book subtitled Discovering Our Selves, then we suggest that he refer to the first chapters of that book.) She has been conditioned to believe that the room must be neat, and that success (hers and the child’s) is measured in good grades, and that when the child does not fulfil these expectations, she creates feelings of unhappiness and failure within herself. She can explain that when she fears what the others will think, it causes her to react negatively toward the child, although deep inside she does not really want to. I suspect that after such clear I-message the child will be much more likely to cooperate in whatever degree he is capable. He has not been blamed, criticised, threatened or made to feel a failure. The mother has taken responsibility for creating her own reality through her own beliefs and needs. After such an I-statement there will usually follow a more open, honest communication in which hidden inner feelings can be expressed on both parts. Now it is time for active listening. In active listening, we try as much as possible to concentrate on what the other is saying and to understand him deeply without projecting our own ideas and thoughts, defences and reactions. We listen with interest, asking questions and occasionally feeding back to the other what we have understood in order to be sure that we have understood clearly. In this way, not only do we understand the other’s needs and feelings clearly, but he himself comes to understand himself more clearly. In the case of the child who is not doing well at school or cleaning his room, there are probably hidden problems which are occupying the child’s mind. He has likely not felt free to discuss these problems with his parents, because since they criticise him continuously, he does not feel that they will understand. If one of his parents opens up to him in this way, not coming down on him like a parent, but across like an adult, simply expressing what he or she feels, then the child may feel more open and discuss what is on his mind. I-statements and active listening are used together in order to create an atmosphere for effective, unifying communication. When properly used our communication becomes more clear and harmonious. There is increased understanding and cooperation so that everyone’s needs are more fully met. There is less inner tension and more harmony with our selves and others.

There are six aspects to each I-statement:

1. The first is to explain to the other that our relationship with him is important to us and that our purpose in communicating with him is to improve it.

2. We must identify exactly how or what we feel. What need is not being fulfilled? What is it that we want and we are not getting, and how does that make us feel?

3. What is the program that is causing us to feel in the way we do? We have some program which says if we do not have what we think we «have to have» we cannot be happy. What is it that we believe that we have to have? That if we don’t have it, we feel negative and alienated?

4. What aspect of the others’ behaviour stimulates or triggers the program or belief mentioned in 3 and creates the feelings mentioned in 2?

5. What is it that we would like to request of the other person so that we may feel more harmonious in our relationship with him, at least until we are able to overcome the beliefs which are causing our negativity (if this is what we chose to do).

6. Opening up to the other and allowing him now time to express to us how he feels in the relationship ,and what he needs from us in order to feel better with us. That is active listening.

Thus, we explain to the other exactly what emotion we are feeling, the program or belief which causes that feeling, and the action or behaviour on the part of the other which stimulates that program and the resulting feeling, as well as what he can do to help us feel better. We take responsibility for how we feel, but express it to the other so that he can be aware of what is going on inside us and can adjust his behaviour accordingly. Just the fact that we have expressed our feelings and that they have been heard and accepted in a spirit of open communication is a great relief, even if the other is unable to change his behaviour. We must remember, however that every I-statement needs to be followed by active listening to see how the other feels about the situation, and what is going on in his mind. To communicate does not mean to just make our demands and assert our feelings, but also to understand the others’ feelings. Often we think we are making I-messages when we are actually making you-messages. For example, we say «I feel that you are inconsiderate and insensitive when you talk like that». That does not express how we feel. It does not express the hurt and resentment we feel when someone talks to us in that way. No feeling has been expressed. I have simply masked a you-statement into an I-statement. An I-statement would be, «I feel hurt, unloved and disrespected when you talk to me in that manner. That causes me to feel closed towards you and even to become angry and sometimes aggressive with you». With such a message we haven’t blamed the other. We have told him what we feel, why we feel it and what the other does which stimulates those feelings, and how we react in such cases toward him. We may even express ourselves more deeply and try to explore why we create feelings of hurt and disrespect in ourselves when he talks in that way. We may discover childhood pains and traumas, which are brought up to the surface when we are confronted with that type of behaviour. Then we can mutually discuss how we both feel in such situations and not only grow closer in love and understanding, but also understand ourselves more clearly. Another problem is that we might make an I-statement verbally but really feel a you-message within us. We may take every care to make a correct I-message but inside us we are feeling «you good for nothing, making me suffer like this, you should be ashamed of yourself». We have not really taken the responsibility for our programming which creates our reality. Inwardly we are blaming the other. No matter how perfect an I-message we make on the surface, if we continue to believe that the other is to blame for our suffering, then the other will pick up that message and will react negatively accordingly. Thus taking responsibility for creating the feelings we experience within us is a basic prerequisite to any I-message.

There are various types of I-messages for different situations.

1. The declarative I-message is used when we simply want to express a need, desire, opinion or inner reality. We are not necessarily in conflict with someone, but are simply letting our feelings and needs be known by the others. Doing this wards off many potentially unpleasant situations in which people suppress their feelings and thoughts, and then feel that the others do not take them into consideration. Learning to make declarative messages makes a relationship much more equal and open. Women especially need to practice expressing their needs in this assertive way. Women have been conditioned by society to suppress their needs. For all of us, however, who suppress our needs and feelings, this leads to feelings of resentment and of being unloved and unappreciated. When our inner feelings then become too negative to hold in any longer, we are more susceptible to lose our temper about some small insignificant event. It would be better to avoid these two extremes of suppression and aggression, and learn to be assertive about one’s needs, desires and opinions.

2. We are often asked to do something with or for someone else. It is now time for a responsive I-message. We must first decide very clearly whether we actually want to do what is asked of us or not. It may be to lend something, or to help someone, or to go to dinner, or to talk to someone for a few hours on the telephone, or to take a position in an organisation,or to donate some money. We must decide whether we want to do what we are asked, and why we do or do not want to do it. Then we express our decision and why we have come to that decision. «I thank you for your invitation to dinner, but I am extremely tired and prefer to get to bed early». «I am sorry but I have decided that I cannot help you on Saturday because I feel that my children and family need my presence more». «You know I really do not enjoy social activities very much any more, so I don’t think I will come this evening. Perhaps we can get together just the two of us for some time and have a more deep and sincere communication». «Yes, I would be glad to help you this weekend, because I really love you very much and would like to express that love through my actions». Thus the first step in making a responsive I-message is to understand clearly what we want to do and then to honestly express it. It may be possible that we will have mixed feelings. «You know I find myself in a dilemma, because on the one hand I love you and would like to sit and listen to your problem right now, but on the other I am exhausted and quite nervous myself. Let me rest for a few hours and I will call you back». We have learned to avoid the truth at all costs, for fear that the other will stop loving us or reject us. When we do something with or for someone halfheartedly, it has no benefit. Better to offer less but with all our heart rather than to do something out of a sense of obligation and build up feelings of resentment. Personally, I choose to practically never say no except in cases where I am invited to social gatherings or dinners which I simply prefer not to spend time on. Being able to say yes most of the time is a result of three basic factors:
a. Diminishing my own personal needs as much as possible so that they do not require much time, energy or thought.
b. Keeping my energy level up through exercises, breathing techniques, relaxation, meditation and proper food.
c. A feeling of love and compassion for most people.

Although we want to be able to say no when we feel no inside us, the ultimate goal for the evolving soul is to be able to eventually feel an open hearted yes in his heart always. Of course, this yes must be used with discrimination. We should avoid doing for others what they can actually do for themselves. By taking responsibility or fulfilling needs for others who are really able to do these things themselves, we hold them back in their growth process. As long as they depend on others, they will not develop the inner self-confidence, strength and responsibility which are necessary for their natural maturity as human beings. We will also need to say not when what is requested from us is in conflict with our sense of morality, such to tell a lie. And of course we will have to say no when what is asked of us will be harmful to us or others.

3. When we have observed that a problem has been created in the past with another person and we want to avoid the same or worse happening in the future, then it is time for a preventive I-message. We hope to prevent a more serious conflict by expressing what is happening within us. The steps are:
a. We take responsibility for what we are feeling inside us, which is a result of our programming.
b. We identify what emotions and states we are feeling.
c. We identify what programs, needs, desires or beliefs are creating those feelings.
d. We identify the behaviour of the other person which stimulates this program and the consequent unpleasant and separating feelings.

An example: «You know, I have a childhood conditioning that one shouldn’t eat in front of others without offering them a portion. When you eat in front of me and do not offer me any, I feel disrespected and unloved. I realize that it is my problem, but I thought I should explain it to you because sometimes it affects my behaviour towards you». Now it is time for active listening to see how the other feels. The other may have been completely unaware of the problem, or he may have sensed it but have feared being rejected if he offered the food. Another example: «Dear, you know I am beginning to feel negative toward you lately, and I would like to discuss the problem. As you have probably realised, I have a need to be reassured of your love though affection and attention. Lately it seems that you have been very tired or preoccupied with other things, and haven’t been paying very much attention to me at all. Sometimes I talk to you and you do not even answer. When this happens, I feel rejected, unloved and begin to feel bitter and angry towards you and sometimes even fear that you have found someone else. I am trying to think positively and find strength within myself, but I do still need some more affection and attention from you. Can we discuss this? I would be very interested in what has been going on inside you all this time. I think our relationship needs this communication».

And then it is time for active listening to understand what the other is feeling. No one has been blamed or accused of being unloving or insensitive. No feelings have been suppressed. We have a deep open communication between two responsible adults.

4. When the situation has become serious and we are are unhappy with things as they are, it is time for a confrontive I-message. In addition to all the aspects of the preventive message previously mentioned we may add that we are determined to have our needs met in this situation. In some cases in which repeated communication has brought about little attention or cooperation from the other party we may have to inform him of what we plan to do if the behaviour is not changed. For example in the previous example, the communication may end with this message: «And after considering all the possibilities and all our previous attempts to find a solution to this problem, I have come to the decision that if we cannot find a solution now and you cannot understand my needs, then I have decided to leave the relationship for the time being and try living on my own». Then we actively listen to what the other feels and has to say.

These messages are useful in all human interactions; between parents and children, teachers and students, husbands and wives, employers and employees, friends and in certain situations, even with complete strangers. Of course, one has to use one’s discrimination in feeling who is ready to hear an I-message and who is not. I repeat again that the most essential aspect of this whole system of communication is that we take full responsibility for the reality we are creating in our minds, before we start expressing ourselves.

C. WHO OWNS THE PROBLEM?

Now let us look at how we can see the problem more clearly in terms of what it is and whose it is. The following diagrams are taken from Linda Adam’s “Effectiveness Training for Women”, but they are certainly valid for both sexes and all ages.

In figure 6 (next page) we have a box which contains all the different types of behaviour of the other person. In figure 7 these different types of behaviour and attitudes are divided into those which are acceptable to us and those which are not. This dividing line is not static, but it will slide up or down depending on a number of factors.

1. Our physical-mental state will very much affect how many types of unacceptable behavior we are able to accept from the other person. When we are tired,lacking in vitality, full of nervous tension, the line moves upward leaving many more situations unacceptable to us. When we are relaxed, and full of energy, the line moves down, thus making the same behaviour patterns now acceptable to us. This fact is an important reason for us to be regular in our practice of exercises, breathing techniques, deep relaxation, meditation and proper diet which sustain an abundant flow of high quality energy.

2. The environment also plays a role in affecting what we find acceptable or unacceptable. For example we may be able to accept certain kinds of behaviour from our family or friends in the privacy of our home but not in public, or vice-versa.

3. Who the other person is will also play a role in what is acceptable to us or not. For example we may be able to accept certain kinds of behaviour from some people who we fear or respect or love and not from others who we do not fear, love or respect.

4. Our subconscious beliefs will play a great part in determining who and what we can accept. Each of us is programmed subconsciously to like and dislike certain types of people, things and situations. These attachments and aversions will obviously affect the level of our acceptability-unacceptability line. The more we work on getting free from our attachments and aversions, the more free we become from unpleasant feelings resulting from behaviour which we find unacceptable in the others.

D. WHEN THE PROBLEM BELONGS TO THE OTHER

This figure helps us to analyse further the type and solution of the problem at hand. Box I helps us to identify who owns the problem, and Box II helps us to understand what skills may be useful in solving the problem. In Box I section «a» we have all the cases in which the other person is unhappy or dissatisfied with something. We often get caught up in an emotional merry-go-round when the other person’s problem is our behaviour. We lose sight of the fact that they have the problem and not us. Our problem is that we do not like to be accused, criticised or made to feel guilty for what we may be doing which the other person is using to create unhappiness in himself. We often get lost in our hurt and defensiveness and begin the endless game of defending and counter-accusing which leads to a complete communication break down. If we can remember at that moment that the other person has the problem and not identify with our personality which is being criticised or accused (imagine that he is talking about someone else), then we can practice active listening, rather than excuses, self-defense and counter accusations. Through active listening we can get a much clearer idea of what is really bothering the other person. We may find that he is right. We may find that we were innocently unaware of how important something was to him. Or by mutually exploring the problem in depth the other person might realize that it is his attachments and weaknesses which are causing his pain and not our behaviour. Or we may come to the realisation that we have been so preoccupied with our own insecurities and needs, that we have been truly inconsiderable of the other’s needs, and may want to thank him for pointing this out, and then make the appropriate change in our behaviour. In other words, through actively listening at the moment when the other person has the problem there will be communication, and not the usual «melodramatic court case».

So when we find ourselves with a person who is criticising us and accusing us, let us remember that it is his problem, that he is unhappy (probably with himself) that he is disturbed about something which may or may not be our fault. Rather than feel hurt and defensive, let us listen as though he is talking about someone else and ask as many questions as we can so as to help both of us understand the real problem more clearly. Then let us discuss what might be some of the possible solutions i.e., changes in our behaviour or in the other’s programming or both.

E. WHEN THERE IS NO PROBLEM

Referring back to our Box I, we see that obviously when there is no problem, no particular action is necessary. It might be interesting to note here though that most people seek happiness, pleasure and harmony in their lives. This is natural because these positive qualities remind us of our natural state of pure bliss which is the basic quality of the Spirit, Soul or Inner Self, however you may like to call it. So we try to create lives of happiness and harmony as a basic step towards opening our lives to these spiritual energies. We do not have much choice, just as the river must flow towards the sea, we too must flow towards the Divine and love ourselves in it.

F. WHEN WE OWN THE PROBLEM

When the problem is ours (Box I, section c) it is time for an I-message.We have discussed the various types of I-messages which may be useful in various situations. The important point here is to discover who really owns the problem. Basically if we are feeling negative, worried, dissatisfied, angry, hurt, fearful, bitter, resentful, jealous or any other separating emotion, then we own the problem, or at least a part of it. We have some needs or attachments which are not being fulfilled. We must find out what exactly our problem is and express it to the others with whom it is associated. Our solution will be to simultaneously make the I-message and work on becoming free from the attachment or aversion which is causing our suffering.

G. THE NO-LOSE SOLUTION METHOD FOR CONFLICTS OF NEEDS

When we both own the problem (Box I, d) we have to analyze whether the conflict is one of needs or values. A conflict of needs requires one approach and a conflict of values requires another. Let us consider first a conflict of needs. Two people are in a relationship i.e. parent-child, husband-wife, co-workers, friends, employer-employee or any other situation. Both, or even a group, find their needs are not being met. Neither is happy with the situation. What usually happens is that one wins and one loses in such a conflict. Let us say that I win and you lose. You will accept the situation on the surface, but will likely feel hurt, resentment and perhaps even anger towards me. Obviously you are not going to cooperate or participate wholeheartedly in our relationship. I am going to feel your unhappiness and negativity, and will be seriously affected by it, either consciously or subconsciously. I will have won but I will also have lost for I will not be able to be happy (which was the original reason for which I fought to have my way; to be happy). Now, suppose that you win the conflict, and my needs remain unmet. I will feel hurt, unfulfilled,disrespected and resentful towards you, and my negativity will cause me to close myself towards you. There will be no love, communication or cooperation in our relationship. In other words, no matter who wins, everyone loses. This is always the case when we try to force others into complying with our addictions through power games. Linda Adams presents a no-lose method in her previously mentioned book. This no-lose method will be found extremely useful and effective for solving problems by all mature and willing persons. There are seven stages.

1. First we must define the problem in terms of needs or attachments. We must each identify what he wants that he is not getting,which is making him feel unhappy. It is not yet time to discuss solutions, but only needs and desires which are not being fulfilled, thus causing tensions. This may take some time in that we are not used to seeing our problems in terms of our own unfulfilled attachments, but rather, we quickly blame the other for making us unhappy.

2. Next, we sit together and creatively generate possible solutions. No solution which is suggested must be accepted or rejected in the beginning.We are going to write all kinds of solutions, even seemingly crazy or impossible ones. We must not analyze or judge yet, but simply allow the mind to run in creative directions offering all type of solutions. This requires a lot of active listening and no judging or evaluating at all. Many suggestions seem unacceptable when we first hear them, but then later on, especially in combination with other thoughts, they seem like good ideas. Also someone may think of something which in reality is impossible or unacceptable to all, but serves as a seed idea for another, or even for himself, which gives birth to another idea which is quite useful. For this reason we must allow our minds to be open and write down all the ideas which are expressed.

3. Now it is time to evaluate the possible solutions which we have written down. First go down the list and remove those which are obviously unacceptable to both parties. Then we begin to discuss the other possibilities trying to find the one which most fairly fulfils the needs of both parties. Obviously no one solution will likely satisfy both parties completely, but that is what relationships are all about, love, sacrifice, compromise, and growth. Any time we work on one of our unfulfilled addictions and manage to be happy even though it remains unfulfilled, it likely means growth. This should not be suppression ,however, but transcendence.

4. Finally we decide upon a mutually acceptable solution. We may like to both write it down clearly so that there will not be any misunderstandings. In writing it down, other questions may come up which would have to be clarified so as to avoid future problems.

5. Then we put the solution into practice in our daily lives. We must enter into this period with a sense of trust in the other, that he also, is going to try to the best of his ability. Let us not wait with a critical eye to catch the other falling back on his agreement. This will not be useful. We are not going to break 10 or 50 years of habits in one day. We must be as patient and understanding as we would like the other to be towards us. We must have understanding and goodwill during this trial period giving the other and ourselves some chances to put the new agreement into practice.

6. After some weeks or months, we can sit down again and evaluate how the agreement is working for us in the fulfilment of our needs and the development of our relationship. It is time for more I-mes

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