Merge's Blog

Use “I” language to reduce defensiveness

As a supervisor or manager, one of your toughest jobs is to give negative feedback to your people. Far too often, employees get defensive when confronted with criticism. Their defensiveness can be awkward and upsetting, causing you to veer away from your intended message. And to make things worse, defensiveness is known to worsen listening ability, so when you finally walk away from the interaction, you’re still uncertain whether your message was heard.  To overcome these challenges, successful leaders master the art of assertive language, which is based on the premise that you can emphasize what you need and still be respectful. While assertive language does not guarantee that the other person will not become defensive, it does lessen the likelihood of it happening. It improves the odds that your message will be received and understood in the way you had intended.

“I” language is one of the simplest and most basic assertive language tools in the successful leader’s communication toolkit. Consider this situation where Katrina is frustrated with Kelly, an employee always late in submitting his weekly expense statements for her approval.

“Kelly, you frustrate me when you don’t submit your expense statement on time.”

Unfortunately, Katrina’s use of the word “you” is practically guaranteed to make Kelly defensive and reduces the chance that he will listen effectively. However, what if Katrina was to use “I” language in this conversation.

“Kelly, I feel frustrated when I don’t receive your expense statement on time.”

This version will have much greater success in ensuring that Katrina’s message was received and understood.

While the difference between these two statements may seem subtle on the surface, the difference is huge. In the first statement, Kelly can easily perceive Katrina as “attacking” him; in the latter statement, Katrina is merely expressing her feelings, a circumstance that is much less likely to be perceived as confrontational. Also, there’s really no room for argument in the second version – after all, Kelly can’t dispute Katrina’s statement that she is frustrated. The bottom line: less defensiveness on Kelly’s part means better listening and comprehension, and an increased likelihood that he will understand and act on Katrina’s message.

Have you used “I” language in the workplace?  Has it worked for you?  Share your experience please!

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