Aug 22, 2012

They're Not Teaching You I-Messages

Just yesterday we received a phone call from someone who was in the middle of taking an (unmentionable) communication skills course, and called us to ask for clarification on giving the I-Message. This extremely frustrated young man sounded relieved to be finally getting some real help and clarification on how this skill works. As he delicately approached his question, he began by explaining something that was actually very different from what an I-Message really is. Because just as common as the term is used, it is mis-used. Here was yet another example of it's misuse.

He proceeded to ask for reassurance on whether or not he should be following the formula: I feel______ when______ and I would like______ so can we _______.

I politely explained to him that we do not teach that formula and that unfortunately, I could not help him in his search for how to correctly deliver this four-part confrontive statement of sorts. After several more attempts to get me to answer him about this, I began to listen closer to his frustration. He told me that he was desperately trying to get this thing down right and that every time he asked for more questions in the class, he was accused of not doing his homework. Nobody was giving him the proper formula for how to fill in those four blanks and when he tried it at home, it was not working at all like they said it would.

I listened. (And by that I mean, I active listened.) After what I believed to be a minor breakthrough on his part, I offered to teach him the original, three-part I-Message by Dr. Thomas Gordon. He asked for examples and I provided them. He wrote down the formula and was pleased. "Finally," he expressed, "this is something that makes much more sense. It's like now I have the right equation to plug into."

I couldn't help but then ask him what this class had taught him about running into resistance after you give someone your I-Message. What were you supposed to do then? His answer was painful. He was advised to repeat himself, act "appropriately" and then tell the other person something along the lines of: "You don't want to talk about this now so let's set up a time when we can talk later."

I can't say I was shocked, but there was some serious head-shaking happening on my end. The poor guy! I could tell how badly he wanted to improve his communication skills and how strongly his desire for help was. To be given a set of tools that didn't work must have been like buying a bicycle without wheels. I wondered aloud: "What are you supposed to do after your second attempt to talk with them and they respond in the same way? Repeat the cycle?"

He sighed. I could hear his shrug right through the phone.

When I explained to him what shifting gears into Active Listening was, it was like a light turned on in his head. Knowing that he had written all this new information down, he sounded eager to continue his research. He thanked me graciously and we ended our conversation.

I hope the rest of the students in that class give us a call!

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