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Positive “I” Messages and Active Listening in Communication

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This view an iceberg is from:  http://londoncoder.files.wordpress.com/2007/12/iceberg.jpg

Positive I Messages in Communication

A Workshop given in the Metropolitan New York Synod,

May 15th through May 29th, 1979

Listening is the only way really to help another person who has a problem and listening to others and to oneself is an art that we have to learn.

When we become upset, our thinking and our feeling become jumbled. When we listen to a person patiently, we allow them to pass through all their feelings, until they come to the point where they can think it out themselves.

Active listening needs to be learned. We are not active when we are speaking and passive when we are listening. Active listening is the hard, empathetic work that we do when we listen intently to another person, for example, to understand the feeling under the person’s words. We see the person through hearing them. Active listening compares observations that are also non-verbal with what the person is saying.

Like an iceberg, you see the tip above the surface and the whole huge mountain looms under the water. Like a grapefruit, therefore, there is much more to a person than meets the eye. At what level is the person’s self-esteem? Is it so low that criticism will be received as rejection? If so, then first you have to help pick up that person’s self-esteem with some affirmation, appreciation, encouragement, a compliment, and / or affection. When a person’s self-esteem is high, then constructive criticism will be received with appreciation.

Now when trying to communicate by means of leveling with each other, or bringing something up, we first have to situate the problem. (Today we usually say, the issue. Although the word “problem” is slightly harsher, let’s stay with the old word.) The question becomes, who owns the problem?

When there is no problem we have the positive I message.

When the other has the problem we use active listening.

When I have the problem, I use a negative I message, being careful not to start my words with the pronoun “You”. That pronoun will seem like an accusation and bring conflict. Thus use “I” messages and not “You” messages.

For example: “You hurt me with what you just said.” That “you-statement” will make the other become defensive because it feels like an accusation. Thus the Negative I Message starts by saying, “I feel hurt by what you said, because it made me feel stupid.”

A “you” statement designed for trouble: “There you go again. You twist everything to have your own way!”

As a Negative I Statement: “I feel very frustrated about what you just said, because you take our words your own way and not the way we meant them.”


I feel _______ about________ because_______

Try formulating some positive and negative I messages from your statements that sounded like accusations and brought about conflict, rather than getting at the issues involved.

This box shows thoughts that feel acceptable and those which do not.


For the no problem category: + I message:

I feel ___________ about ____________ because ____________.

Example of a positive I message: I feel happy about your being so well prepared for this meeting, because then we really get something done.

When we deal with a problem, which is unacceptable, then we do not use the word “you” and sound like we are accusing someone of something, but we use a Negative I Message. When we give a Negative I Message, then we have to shift into active listening, because the feeling barometer of the other person goes up.

For example, someone has just indicated that they are leaving the board, because they are moving away. You feel a sense of loss and inadequacy, because this person was helpful and supportive when others on the board were not.

A “you message” is not helpful. “You would leave now, right when I needed you the most!” That accuses the person of abandoning you and being unhelpful, when you really appreciated their help. The helpful Negative I Message might be said in this way: “I feel a real sense of loss about your leaving the board. I will miss you because I really appreciated your help and support in the difficulties we face on the board.” After the negative I message, you shift into active listening to help the person leaving, work through their feelings and express their own sense of loss and regret for the separation.

You use the + I Message when there is no problem.

Active listening, when the other owns the problem.

Neg. I Message, when I own the problem.

Neg. I message when the other owns the problem.

What do we do when we own the problem, all of us own the problem, when for example, the whole board is coming late and missing too many meetings?

Now we own the problem, we have shared the negative I statement, but the values in the group are still at odds. This calls for brain-storming for a solution. Get as many as possible to have a say in the solution. For the group process, it is necessary to take the following steps:

D Define the problem (all need to be involved here).

G Generate ideas for a solution

(Set no limits here in G. Do not evaluate yet at all.)

E Evaluate: criticize, weigh, see what makes sense.

D decide on a plan.

I Implement.

F Follow through

Recognize who has compromised in the situation. Some may have had to compromise more than others. Give those a break next time. The more people that buy into a solution, the more of a chance you have of carrying it through.


What happens when you have value-collision? Say that you are dealing with teenagers, who are challenging your authority to try to assert their own authority. Mostly, they will not listen to you. Find a way so that they want to listen to you. “Try to get hired as a consultant.” Model the behavior that you would like them to follow. Give them data that is relevant in a non-authoritative way. Choose the important issues to confront. Don’t confront every issue. In value-collision, when all else fails, pray.

Good counseling is not like giving advice. Person have to work their issues through themselves, while the counselor patiently supports them through the process.

Perhaps this little workshop demonstrates that communication is an art and these skills in speaking and relating to one another, show how much more could be learned in the art of communication. Better communication can lead the way to more growth and maturity on a personal level and a less dysfunction on an organizational level. This workshop in communication contains not a little wisdom and I wish I could remember who the leaders, the presenters, were. They deserve our gratitude.

For FG and RG with my heartfelt gratitude for their friendship.

Pastor Peter Krey

from notes taken in Coney Island, New York, May 15th, May 22nd, and May 29th, 1979.

A sermon of mine that was preached in 1983 grappled with active listening and deepened it theologically. It is called “Listening Our Way into Another’s Heart.”

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Written by peterkrey

January 4, 2008 at 6:05 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] Positive “I” Messages and Active Listening in Communication […]

  2. […] Positive “I” Messages and Active Listening in Communication […]

  3. […] it would take many a workshop. If you go to my website, I have a whole lesson in there on it. (Active Listening) We have to bracket ourselves out, keep our wounds bandaged, so we can uncover the wound of another […]


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