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One Mantra for Effective Communication Skills

Remembering this simple principle can help prevent self-sabotage.

Key points

  • Self-awareness and self-regulation are key components of effective communication.
  • A mantra that can be helpful to consider is: “Don’t say or do what you feel like saying or doing. Say or do what’s effective.”
  • Using “I” statements rather than “you” statements can prevent people from responding defensively and increase one's influence.

My Psychology Today blog is devoted to helping people understand the importance of organizational politics and increase their level of personal power and influence in ways that are positive and ethical. But even though readers may understand the rationale behind many of the principles that I discuss, it may still be very difficult to put those principles into practice due to certain barriers and old habits.

Much of these barriers and habits have to do with ineffective communication skills, which is why, in this post, I’m going to discuss two of the most important components of effective communication, especially during moments of conflict, tension, and disagreement or when discussing sensitive or difficult subject matter. In the process, you’ll once again see, hopefully, how the ideas I discuss in this blog tie into and depend on each other.

The Mantra for Power and Influence

I have a personal motto that I call the Mantra for Power and Influence. I’ll start by giving you the first half:

Don’t say or do what you feel like saying or doing.

The problem, of course, is that a lot of people do just that. Maybe, ordinarily, when things are calm, they’re able to say and do what their training or common sense (or both) tell them to do. But if things get heated enough, they end up saying or doing things they later regret. There are two parts to this problem: lack of self-awareness and lack of self-regulation.

First, let’s start with lack of self-awareness. Very few people go through their daily interactions with others consciously paying attention to their moods, feelings, and impulses. “Consciously” is the key word. People who yell or behave unpleasantly when they’re angry obviously know, on some level, that they’re angry. But it’s more of a subconscious event, not a conscious one, in which they immediately say or do what their impulses compel them to. It’s a primal response. There is not a moment in which they’re consciously thinking, I am feeling anger.

Self-awareness involves being able to take a moment, however brief, to consciously recognize that you are feeling anger instead of just blindly reacting on impulse. In fact, it helps to intentionally pause and think to yourself: I am feeling angry / defensive / insulted / embarrassed (or whatever the emotion may be). Just by consciously identifying the emotion, you’re already interrupting the pattern that most people habitually fall into without a second’s thought. Once you’re able to do this, you can go to the second step of self-regulation.

Self-regulation is the ability to resist the urge to say or do what your emotion makes you feel like saying or doing. To quote Winston Churchill, "By swallowing evil words unsaid, no one has ever harmed [their] stomach." So, if you feel like insulting someone’s intelligence, you don’t. If you feel like lashing out in anger, you don’t. This is very difficult to do, and no one can do it every single time. But if you can learn to do it most of the time, it will be one of the most valuable skills you could ever possibly learn and can often mean the difference between success and failure.

Saying and Doing What’s Most Effective

If you’re able to be self-aware and self-regulate—and, as mentioned, most people are not usually able to—then you’re already way ahead of the curve. But this still only covers the first half of the Mantra for Power and Influence. Here, then, is the second half:

Say or do what’s effective.

So, the full mantra is, Don’t say or do what you feel like saying or doing. Say or do what’s effective. Once you’ve become aware of your feelings and can regulate the urge to say or do things you’ll regret, the next part is knowing what the most effective things to say and do actually are. Unfortunately, yet again, many people don’t know what those things are, especially during tense or emotional interactions.

One thing to point out, by the way, is that doing or saying what’s effective should always stay within the realm of what’s ethical. There may be things you could say or do in certain situations that might be effective but not ethical. For example, in my last post, I discussed how the principle of apparent sincerity makes you more effective politically but that it gets misunderstood as meaning you should fake being sincere. Apparent sincerity is actually not about faking anything, but let’s just use fake sincerity as an example. Let’s say that on Monday you compliment a coworker’s new hairstyle even though you don’t actually like it because you want to be nice. Then, on Tuesday, you passionately persuade another colleague, one you’re in competition with, to take on a project you think will fail. Both actions might be “effective,” at least in the short term, but the latter is clearly unethical.

Focus on the “I” Not the “You”

When it comes to saying and doing what’s effective, someone who’s done invaluable work is Dr. Dalton Kehoe, a professor of communications at York University and the author of a highly recommended lecture series called Effective Communication Skills. According to Kehoe, part of the problem is that people get too hung up on being right, and the way they communicate with people reflects this need to be right. Kehoe calls this form of communication “control talk” which is all about winning/losing or being right/wrong. But when in a dispute, being right and solving the problem are not necessarily the same thing, and at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself whether you want to be right or actually solve the problem.

If it’s more important to you to be right, fine, don’t change anything and keep insisting that you’re always right. But don’t blame anyone or anything else when things don’t go your way either. If, on the other hand, you want to solve the problem, you need to reevaluate and change the way you talk to people during a conflict or disagreement. You have to use what Kehoe calls “dialogue talk.” In “dialogue talk,” you also have to resist the desire to judge, and a surefire way to make people feel judged is to use critical “you” messages:

You’re wrong!
You make me so angry!
You always do this!

“You” messages like these put people on the defensive. They’re no longer listening to you because they’re too busy trying to defend themselves or counter-attack with “you” messages of their own, and you certainly can’t be influential if the other person stops listening to you. A far more effective way to express how you feel is through “I” messages. “I” messages honor what you’re thinking and feeling, but they also acknowledge that it’s you who is thinking and feeling that way. Other people aren’t “making” you do anything. You’re also not telling them that they’re wrong. Even in situations where they really are factually wrong, it’s still more effective, psychologically speaking, to use “I” messages when possible.

Now, let’s change the “you” messages above to “I” messages. I’ll use two examples for each statement to show there are different ways to say the same thing.

I see it differently. / I disagree.
I’m angry right now. / I’m feeling upset.
I’m feeling frustrated. / I wish it didn’t have to be this way.

To be clear, you don’t necessarily need to start every sentence with the pronoun “I.” What’s important is that you keep the focus on how you are subjectively feeling rather than on a perceived fault or flaw in the other person. It also helps to add detail and context to your “I” messages. A good way to do this is through descriptive “I” messages. For example, let’s turn the statement “I’m upset” into a descriptive “I” message. You could say something like, “I can see how something like this can happen, and I’m open to hearing your thoughts. But I’m feeling angry because I was really expecting a different result.”

Also, avoid fake “I” messages which slap the “I” pronoun onto the message but still put the fault or blame on the other person. For example, “I feel like this is all your fault and you always do this!” is very much still a “you” message despite the presence of the “I” pronoun.

Turning “you” messages into descriptive “I” messages is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to effective communication skills, and we can’t cover all of it in just one article. But the most important point is that in the workplace, as in life in general, if you want better results you can’t just say and do what you feel like in the moment. You have to say and do what’s effective (again, within ethical bounds).

None of this is easy. As someone who has run afoul of my own mantra more times than I can count, rest assured this advice is offered with humility. It takes a conscious effort to convert “control talk” into “dialogue talk.” The better you get at it, however, the more influential you’ll be. Fortunately, there is an entire science and psychology to saying and doing what’s effective so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel or do any guesswork. You just have to be willing to learn and practice. In my previous blog posts, this current post, and future posts, my goal is to help you do just that.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the University of San Diego School of Business.

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