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Why you need to use ‘I’ statements

When addressing a difficult problem in the veterinary practice, find out how “I” statements can help you communicate it without shutting down the conversation

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I remember, with some embarrassment, when I had an opinion that I wanted to bring forward, and I confronted a colleague very ineffectively. I was so sure that my idea was right that I told her that she “should” pay attention to my idea. I was so determined that she listen to me that I raised my voice and repeated my point over and over again. She raised her voice, too, and it was an unbecoming scene. It was rather ridiculous, because the situation wasn’t a matter of danger or legality. It was only that I thought we should include clients at a brainstorming session. She thought my idea was premature. We could not hear each other.

I’ve always thought that an important part of effective interaction involves speaking up. That might be good advice particularly for those reluctant to make comments. We all need to share our thoughts and concerns, to disclose our opinions and our hopes and, at times, we need to speak up in order to get our needs met.

The question is how to be effective. It was some years after that embarrassing confrontation that I learned a better way.

Difficult Conversations: How to Handle Them

Most conversations are without tension or disagreement. But, some conversations are difficult. This is true when you need to impart information that you think will be uncomfortable or hurtful, such as when you need to tell a client that the pet you are treating has died.

It may also be the case when you need to discipline an employee or want to confront a colleague about a concern of yours — as I did about our brainstorming session.

All of us have experienced major conflicts and little day-to-day annoyances that come up. One vet tech I worked with said, “I can’t seem to get my teammate to keep our workspace clean. Nothing I say will make a difference.”

Another said, “I’ve given up. My supervisor never listens to me, so I’ve stopped complaining. I just have to find a way to cope.”

Because these conversations are difficult, we either avoid them or have an ineffective embarrassing confrontation, like the one I described. We are not sure we will say the right thing, and we fear the impact of what we’ll say. If we raise the issue, there is fear that we might lose control. But, if we say nothing, the problem is not resolved.

While the vast majority of interactions are professional, pleasant and useful, a few are not. They are the ones that trouble us. These difficult conversations are often long remembered and may even lead to hard feelings over time.

An Alternative Way to Communicate

When there are problems in the conversation, it is often tempting to use the typical patterns, which I enumerated as “roadblocks” in my last column. But, you may recall, I promised to share with you a better way.

After receiving all the typical patterns we use that tend to be roadblocks to effective communication, you probably asked, “What alternatives are there?”

Try the I-Message

When I confronted my teammate (in a clumsy and ineffective way), I was determined not to be a doormat. I wanted to be assertive. I didn’t mean to be aggressive, but I’m not sure I knew how to draw the line.

Later, I learned the secret of the “I-message,” as a way to be assertive — not passive and not aggressive. I learned, too, that the “I-message” kept me from the roadblocks, which are essentially “you-messages.” I learned that my confrontation was more effective if I spoke for ME in an honest way, sharing my needs and concerns.

The “I-statement” is a statement that you make about yourself, how you feel, your concern and what actions have led to these concerns. It is a communication pattern that enables you to speak up about your needs (rather than being passive). It is also a way to identify and share your feelings. Sharing your feelings is often the trigger that influences a person with whom you are speaking to pay attention to your need. The “I-statement” also enables you to state how the situation affects you, which can have a lot of impact.

The I-message avoids focusing on the other person. You-messages (like “you should keep this work space clean”) often lead your teammate to become defensive. For example, “You never return the supplies when you use them,” or “You need better habits.” You-messages usually attack the other person, and, as a result, the primary issue is pushed aside while your teammate turns to denial or a counter attack. Instead, you might say, “When I go to the supply cabinet and cannot find the XYZ, I’m worried that I may not be able to complete my procedure in a timely way.” In this statement, you have shared your feelings and concerns. It is a good starting point for discussion.

The I-message is effective because the focus is on your feelings and concern. It is not on the other person. Sharing your feelings can also be effective because you are willing to look within yourself and take responsibility for your own feelings.

If this is a new pattern of speech, you might find it helpful to break the I-message into three parts: (1) how you, as the speaker, feel,  (2) a description of the action that affects you, and (3) an explanation of how the action affects you. You might begin with a “script,” saying, “I feel ________ when you (a non-blameful description of the behavior that is bothering you), because _________.”

Instead of reacting, your teammate’s response may help you learn something. For example, your teammate might inform you that he or she is not guilty of not returning the supplies — someone else has been using the supplies. You might, as a result of this exchange, learn that there is a shortage of certain supplies which both of you need regularly. Or, you may learn that, indeed, he is guilty of not returning the supplies but you will also learn that he’s under a lot of pressure, due to a heavy work schedule.

Of course, there is also the possibility that he may respond with a defensive tone. In this case, listen.

Listen for his feeling (perhaps by reading his body language), and take a moment to recognize his response, i.e., parrot or paraphrase.

Respond in a way that will assure him that you are listening. For example, in a non-judgmental tone, say, “I get it. You’re not returning the supplies because you are using them regularly yourself.” In some cases, while taking the time to hear your teammate’s response, it may be necessary to repeat your concern. After all, your intent it to get your needs met and come to a resolution.

Debbie Boone, BS, CCS, CVPM, of 2 ManageVets consulting, said this: “When I ask teams to look back over the last few weeks at any client conflicts, medical errors or team drama the underlying reason always comes back to poor communication. The ability to have respectful conversations where differences of opinion exists is a huge plus for a veterinary practice.”

So, I suggest you give the I-message a try. Starting with “I” is an important element in this alternative. It avoids the “you-statement.” It’s not easy, however, because it requires getting in touch with your feelings. We’ll talk about that next time.


Carolyn C. Shadle, Ph.D., is the co-owner of ICS Workplace Communication (www.veterinariancommunication.com ). Shadle was awarded her Ph.D. by the State University of New York at Buffalo in interpersonal and organizational communication and has trained managers and team members in businesses as diverse as General Mills and Oracle’s Sun Microsystems. She is a certified Myers-Briggs assessor and trained with Gordon Training International. Find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest.

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