speaking from I

Speaking from 'I'

A key skill to enhance self-awareness, create powerful transformational communication, and create a culture of openness and transparency

In their book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey suggest that there are several linguistic and thinking patterns that, if implemented, create more productive and effective organisations. High-performing teams regularly communicate amongst themselves and with their stakeholders using these patterns of communication.

Speaking from 'I' cleans up communication and makes you more effective and influential
Very often, in conventional patterns of conversation, people talk about what they are experiencing using the word 'you', rather than 'I'.
For example, "You know when you get really tired, and you can't take a break,... you can get really grumpy and short-tempered. People should get more time to rest in this place."
What this person is 'actually' trying to say is more along the lines of 'I feel very tired, and I have not been able to take a break. I am starting to feel annoyed and short-tempered. Can I go on a break now?'
Most people are completely unaware of their own use of this verbal pattern. If it is brought to their attention, often people will explain that they were meaning to speak in a more general way, or about a more generic circumstance. That might be true, but the consequence of this type of communication pattern is the same regardless; it:
  • distances the speaker from their own experience
  • makes it much harder for them to take responsibility for what they are feeling, and
  • makes it more difficult for them to move into action or make a decision that would get them more of what they want or need.
Instead, this language-pattern and way of thinking often results in people relying on someone else to provide for them.
'I' statements

An ‘I’ statement is a codified form of communication that focuses on the feelings and beliefs of the speaker rather than the speaker's assumptions about the thoughts, feelings, actions, and characteristics of the listener or the person they are talking about.

'I' statements are generally used so that the speaker can be assertive about what they are thinking, feeling, and needing/ wanting without putting the person they are talking to on the defensive.
This is because the structure of an 'I' statement helps people avoid making accusations or attributions about another person. An attribution occurs when a speaker (probably inadvertently) makes an assertion about what another person either did or did not do, felt or did not feel, or thought or did not think.
'I' statements are used so that people can take ownership of their feelings rather than covertly implying that they are caused by someone else. An example of this would be to say:
"I really am getting backed up on my work since I don't have the financial report yet, and I am getting upset when I think of all the extra time I am going to have to spend on this.",
rather than:
"You are messing me up! You didn't finish the financial report on time!"
(This latter example is a "you-statement").
How to construct an 'I' statement
  1. Factual statement about an event“When you scheduled the meeting without me."
  2. Relating your thoughts/ imagining“… I imagined that you didn’t think I had anything to contribute…”
  3. Describing your feeling about that“…And I felt exasperated…”
  4. Declaring what you are going to do about the situation, to get what you need “… so I would like to talk to you again about my role and what I am here to contribute. And I am going to ask you what you think and feel about that and if there is anything getting in the way of us working together more effectively”
A critical part of making an 'I' statement is to be able to name your current emotional state – to connect your physiological sensations to your cognitive processes.
Increasing your emotional vocabulary and acuity is fundamental to developing self-awareness; self-awareness is fundamental to effective relationships with others.
When to use an 'I' statement, and when to call for everyone in a meeting to make an 'I' statement in a round...

A round of I-statements would be initiated when someone in a meeting wants to understand the different perspectives and emotions of everyone else in that meeting about a particular event, situation, problem, or decision. Presumably they want to understand other people's perspectives and feelings so they can make a better, more informed decision themselves.

Calling for a round of 'I' statements is a very beneficial practice for any intact team (operational, line, project, agile, dev ops, ...) This kind of practice creates culture: collective on-going team habit, shared language, and aligned ways of working.

Use an 'I' statement, or ask others to share one, when you are:
  • Opening a meeting – 'checking in'
  • Closing a meeting – summing up/ 'checking out'
  • Making or reviewing a decision – seeking perspectives
  • Attempting to resolve a conflict
  • Feeling something strongly, including confusion…
  • Aware that someone has transgressed an agreement, as a safer, codified way of calling that person to account
  • Aware that performance needs to be discussed

Basically, any time and all the time...