Sunday, March 4, 2012

Relationship Tip of the Week #91-I messages

This week i am featuring a blog by Dan Wile who has written the best book(After the Honeymoon) i have ever read on the communiation process of couples. Many authors offer their advice on how to have the best conversations but in real life, they rarely take place. Below, Dan Wile offers his take(written for therapists) on why the process often gets derailed and how to help couples create the best chance for a successful exchange:

TRANSLATING YOU-MESSAGES INTO I-MESSAGES- The task in Collaborative Couple Therapy is to turn fights into intimate conversations— or to put it in Thomas Gordon’s terms, to translate you-messages (“You hurt me”) into I-messages (“I feel hurt and then I feel angry”). When one partner sends the other a you-message, we move in, speak for the former, and show how it would sound if instead he or she had sent an I-message.

We need to be careful, however, since many I-messages contain hidden you-messages—and I don’t mean just obvious examples such as “I feel you are a jerk.” For example, in sending an I-message, people are told to say, “When you do such and such, I feel such and such.” “When you come home late, I feel hurt”—or sad or lonely or mad. Some communications skills trainers recommend stating the feeling first: “I feel hurt when you come home late.” In either case, the person being addressed is likely to hear the person speaking as saying: “You shouldn’t come home late” and “I feel hurt because you hurt me.” The person speaking is making a complaint—which is why he or she uses the words: “when you do such and such.” And a complaint is by nature a you-message. That person is saying, “You are doing something I don’t like” or “You are failing to do something I would like.” In using the “when you…I feel” formula, the speaker includes a feeling, but the complaint is still there, and the feeling (“I feel hurt”) often has a you-message hidden in it (“because you abandon me”). The “when you…I feel” formula does serve an important purpose, however. It limits the person’s complaint to a specific behavior (being late). There is no room for the inflammatory “always” (as in “Why are you always so late?”) or for character assassination (“You’re irresponsible,” “You’re inconsiderate” or “You think only about yourself”).

Use of the formula softens the accusation by excluding such escalation-promoting elements. In our efforts to translate the partners’ you-messages into I-messages, we engage in a different kind of softening. We acknowledge the doubts they might have about the fairness of their accusations, the fears they might have about how their partners might respond, and the wishes they might have about what they hope to accomplish. We can say, for example, speaking as one of the partners to the other, “I hope you don’t take this wrong.” Or “I know I’m being critical.” Or “I fear this might not go over well.” Or, “At the risk of saying something I will regret, I’m going to tell you that….” Or “I don’t want to ruin the good mood between us, but this has been on my mind.” Or “I hope I can find a way to say this that doesn’t just make you angry.” Or “I’m upset so I might not be saying this in the best possible way.” Or “I’ve had a bad day so I hope I’m not just taking it out on you.” Or “I know I’ve got some nerve complaining since I’m not so easy to live with.” Or, “I realize that it’s hard for you to get away sometimes, it’s just that….” Such examples of what people could (but generally don’t) say makes clear that what comes out our mouths is typically only a fragment of what goes on in our minds. In confiding their doubts, fears, and wishes, the partners would be bringing each other into their ongoing dialogue with themselves. They would be creating a meta-level—a platform—from which to look with each other at what is going on in their minds. They would be adding elements of an I-message to their you-message. But when people are upset, they are unlikely to do such confiding or, for that matter, to be able to use or even remember the “when you…I feel” formula. They sink into a grim, narrowed-down state in which they lose track of all doubts, fears, and wishes and just blurt out, “Why are you always so late? You’re selfish and inconsiderate.”

It is hard for people to send an I-message when they are in a you-message frame of mind—that is, when their neuro-circuits and neurotransmitters are in anger mode. Even if they manage to come up with the right words for an I-message, their tone of voice gives them away. Later, when they and their partners have calmed down—and if the issue at hand isn’t long-term and embittering—one partner may slip into I-message mode and reach out to the other: “I’m sorry I came on so strong about your being late.” Such acknowledgement might be too little too late. But it has the potential to shift the other into I-message mode—that is, the state of mind in which it is possible to send true I-messages. The partner who apologized for coming on strong is making him/herself vulnerable in a way that can disarm the other partner and trigger a cycle in which each (1) admits what he or she had just been denying, (2) appreciates the reasonableness of the other’s point of view, and (3) takes back many of his or her accusations.

Vulnerability inspires vulnerability. “Yes, but I’ve got to work harder to be on time.” “Yes, but I shouldn’t mind so much when you’re a little late.” “Maybe, but it’s still inconsiderate—and disrespectful.” “Yes, but I’ve got to remember that what drew me to you in the first place is your relaxed attitude: how you’re not always worried about getting everything done so perfectly and so exactly on time.” “Yes, and I need to remember that what drew me to you was how efficient and organized you are. I wanted some of that.” When partners shift from the you-message to the I-message frame of mind, they become different people and find themselves in a different relationship.

In conclusion: (1) you-messages come in various degrees and shades: expletives (“Go fuck yourself”), character assaults (“You’re selfish”), exaggeration (“You’re always late”), sarcasm (“I love how prompt you always are”), complaints (“You’re late”) and even certain I-messages (“I feel lonely” when said with a tone of voice that implies “You abandon me”). (2) To send a true I-message, partners need to be in the right frame of mind, one in which their anger or hurt has sufficiently quieted so they can reach out to the other. (3) You-messages are contagious (people receiving them are likely to respond with one of their own), and so are I-messages (vulnerability inspires vulnerability). (4) To the extent that we, their therapists, have not joined them in the you-message mode, we will be in position to translate their you-messages into true I-messages—by confiding (reporting) the complaint rather than making it, eliminating the barbed tone, and bringing in the speaker’s doubts, fears, and wishes.

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