Get That Monkey Off of Your Back

If you’re in a heated discussion and hear yourself using the words “I” or “me” more than a few times, you probably own the problem without even intending to do so.

Below is a conversation that shows how easy it is to fall into the trap of owning a problem that could be shared were it not for one party’s reliance (in this case Marion’s) on personal pronouns. In my classes and workshop sessions, I’ve referred to this as “taking the whole monkey on your back.”

Marion: What you just said is very upsetting to me.

Bill: In what way?

Marion: I wasn’t doing anything and you came along and insulted me.

Bill: Aren’t you being oversensitive?

Marion: I’m not oversensitive.

Bill: Seems that way.

Marion: If you were me, you’d think differently.

Clearly Marion is taking quite personally something that Bill has said. The problem is less that she is doing so than that her expression of those feelings refers back so repeatedly to herself.  In so doing, she completely fails to place the burden of apology or explanation on Bill.  Instead, she talks only about herself and her own point of view.

Hearing herself use “I” and “me” more than one or two times should be a signal to her that she has personalized a problem instead of letting Bill know that he said something he shouldn’t have. Since she fails to notice, Bill is able to keep the focus on her rather than on the problem.

Too often, people allow their feelings, or their reactions, to become the focus of a discussion rather than the real issue. It’s more likely to occur with women, but men are not immune.  It usually allows the person who’s caused the offense to wriggle out of having to explain, apologize, and change his or her ways.

“Why don’t you like my approach?” may seem like an innocuous question, but it invites rejection of your proposed action.  Rewording the question to something like “What would you change in that approach?” removes any personal reference.  The focus then becomes the issue at hand, rather than who’s introduced it.

In contrast to the conversation above, imagine if it had happened this way:

Marion: Bill, you went too far this time.

Bill: Did I upset you?

Marion: What you said was way over the line, by any standard.

Bill: You’re awfully sensitive.

Marion: Don’t let it happen again, Bill.

In this group of responses, Marion has not once mentioned her emotions, and there are no references to “I” or “me”.  She has placed the focus squarely on Bill’s actions and on what he needs to do to correct them.

The next time you hear yourself using “I” or “me”, pause to think. As a rule, don’t talk about being upset, frustrated, or annoyed, nor should you in some other way imply that you’re feeling emotional about the issue at hand. Instead, go after the issue: “This has happened before and it can’t happen again”; “This is a mistake that needs to be fixed”, and “Let’s look at what happened here and make sure it doesn’t happen again”- these are a few effective ways of keeping the focus off your emotions and on the problem.

Kathleen Kelley Reardon is the author of COMEBACKS AT WORK: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation. Copyright © 2010 by Kathleen Kelley Reardon, PhD. Posted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.