Years ago, I was the guitarist in a rock band. Well, okay, the term “rock band” might be a bit of an exaggeration. It was really a group of fresh-faced college students playing children’s music at local parks. The trouble was, our drummer had just learned some fancy new fills and was throwing off the beat–repeatedly, in every single song.
Ever the “nice” kid, I recall being wracked with anxiety as I prepared to confront the drummer. I waited passively first, hoping he would figure out on his own that he was the one messing things up. When that didn’t do the trick, I knew it was time to say something.
It was around that time that one of my mentors taught me how to use “I”-Statements, which forever changed the way I approach awkward conversations, and allowed me to find the words for opening up to the drummer.
“I”-Statements are an approach to confrontation that allows the person doing the confronting to take ownership for their own thoughts, feelings, and needs. Not surprisingly, “I”-statements typically start with the word “I.” Here are some example “I”-Statement sentence starters:
- I noticed…
- I feel… (and you have to use an actual emotion word here!)
- What I’d like is…
In contrast, “You”-statements put the blame on the other person, setting into motion the type of defensiveness that often escalates a confrontation into a fight. A typical “You”-statement might sound something like– “Drummer dude, you’re screwing up our rhythm!” That approach would probably not have lead to anything constructive and may have damaged band cohesion.
Instead, an I-statement allows me to express how I’m being impacted and what I need. For example: “Drummer dude, I noticed myself struggling to keep a steady strumming rhythm during those transitions when you’re using the new drum fills. I’ve felt lost during those parts. What I’d like is to hold off on using the new fills until we can get in sync with our rhythm in practice.”
Sometimes, an “I”-statement doesn’t feel like quite enough, especially when the awkward conversation you are preparing is particularly hard for someone to hear.
Let’s be real! Being on the receiving end of feedback can be uncomfortable, exposing, and make us feel vulnerable! Most of us have a natural defensive mechanism that steps in when those feelings come up while someone is giving feedback. That defensiveness can come across as denying, blaming, excusing, or ignoring. When you’re anticipating defensiveness in your awkward conversation, the “Empathy Sandwich” technique might come in handy.
A palatable confrontation is like a bologna sandwich.
- The top slice of bread is an empathy statement. You can demonstrate empathy (which helps soften your confrontation) by showing that you understand where the other person is coming from. You put yourself in their shoes. For example: “You’ve been so excited to try out the new drum fills you’re learning!”
- The bologna is the meat of the confrontation– the main point you’re hoping they hear. “I noticed myself struggling to keep a steady strumming rhythm during those transitions when you’re using the new fills. I’ve felt lost during those parts. What I’d like is to hold off on using the new fills until we can get in sync with our rhythm in practice.”
- The bottom slice of bread is another empathy statement. “I understand why you’ve been so motivated to try the new fills! You’ve got that battle of the drummers competition coming up and you’re worried you might not be ready!”
The empathy sandwich technique might not work so well if the “meat” of your sandwich has too many layers. Do your best to stick to the point. What do you most want them to hear? If you throw in the kitchen sink, they will likely miss the point.
The empathy sandwich technique works best when the empathy statements you choose assume the best in the other person, are non-judgmental, and reflect your sense of how the other person is feeling.
In her book, “Daring Greatly,” Brene Brown provides a checklist that a person can use to gauge whether or not they are ready to give feedback.
“I know I am ready to give feedback when–
- I’m ready to sit next to you rather than across from you;
- I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you)
- I’m ready to listen, ask questions and accept that I may not fully understand the issue;
- I want to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes;
- I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges;
- I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you;
- I’m willing to own my part;
- I can genuinely thank you for your efforts rather than criticize you for your failings;
- I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to your growth and opportunity; and
- I can model the vulnerability and openness that I can expect from you. (p.204, Daring Greatly)”
A printed version of Brene Brown’s checklist can be found at her website.
If you’d like support gearing up for an awkward conversation, a counselor at Star Meadow Counseling is available to help!
Brown, B. (2017). Engaged Feedback Checklist. Retrieved May 28, 2018, from https://brenebrown.com/downloads/engaged-feedback-checklist/