Working with Difficult People: Be Heard with the Power of “I” Messages

Working with Difficult People: Be Heard with the Power of “I” Messages

Ever wanted to tell someone what you really thought about them but couldn’t muster up the courage to do it? Life would be so much authentic and straightforward if only we could speak our minds when working with difficult people. Holding back our thoughts and feelings has a three-fold consequence.

  1. It hurts us when we harbour negative thoughts and feelings about others.
  2. It is unfair to to the other person because the other person is unaware of the distress caused to you by him/her.
  3. It hurts our relationships because it lacks authenticity.

Most of us are hesitant to share our true reactions especially when working with difficult people. We are hesitant because we are either afraid of getting into a conflict situation or too sensitive and worry that we might hurt them. As a result we carry emotional baggage which becomes toxic for us and the relationship. This state of affairs eventually destroys our sense of connection and loyalty to one another.

An Example

Maggie grew up feeling that it was very inappropriate to utter a negative word to anyone. Even when working with difficult people, she became accustomed to stuffing her feelings to serve her belief. Maggie was a desk clerk for a large plumbing firm and her co-workers were sometimes disrespectful and even aggressive with her. Her working environment became overwhelming as she often endured insults and rude comments, especially from men. Maggie’s social conditioning taught her to push on, to ignore these infractions and keep them to herself. Eventually she suffered an emotional breakdown, and needed to go on stress leave.

Maggie’s problem was a common one – difficulty to speak up for oneself. Her therapist taught her assertiveness skill by using “I” messages, a technique developed by Dr. Thomas Gordon while teaching parents how to address their children’s negative behavior without putting them down.

Maggie soon learned that the formula for an “I” message was simple, having four parts.

  1. Name your feeling about a given behavior.
  2. Clearly state the behavior that bothers you.
  3. State the effect the behavior has on you.
  4. State the desired behavior that you would like using an “I” statement. (What I would like is …)

Maggie began to feel comfortable saying things such as:

  • “I feel disrespected… (name your feeling about a given behavior);
    • …when you order me to hurry up when I’m serving you… (Clearly state the behavior that bothers you)
    • …and that causes me to want to avoid you.” (State the effect the behavior has on you).
    • “What I would like instead is for you to be patient with me knowing I am doing my best to go as fast as I can.” (Stating what you would like instead)
  • “I feel hurt and upset…
    • …when you yell at me to get you things when I’m on my break.
    • This makes me want to hide so no one can find me”.
    • What I would like instead is for you to stop yelling at me and for you to allow me to have my break without interruptions.”
  • “I feel frustrated and angry…
    • …when you give me big jobs to do at the end of the day and expect them to be completed before I go home.
    • This is causing me to stop caring about the quality of my work.”
    • What I would like is for us to discuss the jobs at the beginning of the day or even mid-day so I can leave knowing I’ve gotten everything done for you.”

Let’s take a closer look at these statements.

Feelings

  • “I feel disrespected”
  • “I feel hurt and upset”
  • “I feel frustrated and angry” … all state clearly the feeling that Maggie has.

Situations

 

  • “When you tell me to hurry up when I’m serving you”
  • “When you yell at me to get you things when I’m on my break”
  • “When you give me big jobs to do at the end of the day”…all name the bothersome behavior

Effects

  • “And that makes me not want to be around you”
  • “Makes me want to hide so no one can find me”
  • “Makes me stop caring about the quality of my work”…all name the behavior’s effect upon her.

What I Would Like Instead (The Request)

  • “What I would like instead is for you to be patient with me knowing I am doing my best to go as fast as I can.”
  • “What I would like instead is for you to stop yelling at me and for you to allow me to have my break without interruptions.”
  • “What I would like is for us to discuss the jobs at the beginning of the day or even mid-day so I can leave knowing I’ve gotten everything done for you.”

Maggie learned that it was okay to speak up for herself when necessary and say what she needed. She also learned that people could hear her if she didn’t put them down when she spoke to them, remembering to speak in a non-judgmental way.

There are several things to note about “I” messages.

  1. An “I” message takes the blame out of the statement so the other person can listen to what is being said.
  2. The person sending the message owns the problem rather than making the recipient of the message the problem. Thus the listener can stay engaged without defensiveness and fully hear what is being said.
  3. People, who know they are contributing to your feelings of discomfort, will try to adapt their behavior to create some sort of harmony once they become aware. Some people may become defensive at first, but stay the course. Some will not care at all, but this signifies other problems in the relationship.

You too can learn to use “I” messages and stand up for yourself. This simple formula will improve your relationships, bringing a depth of richness and possibility to your life. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Monitor yourself and see if there are things bothering you that you need to speak to someone about.
  2. Use the “I” message formula to plan how you will respond to the person involved.
  3. Practice out loud so you hear yourself speaking in the “I” message mode before actually going to the show. This will help form the neural pathways necessary to help you begin this new behavior.
  4. Take a risk and Just do it! You just might like the feeling of the outcome.

You can do it. The sky’s the limit when you give yourself the emotional breathing space to become real and transparent with others, especially when working with difficult people. Using the above assertiveness skill can bring real rewards for you and your relationships. However, make no mistake, developing the skill requires courage and risk-taking. But it is definitely worth the reward of personal growth and authentic relationships.

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