Withhold “I” say “you”
Here’s a technique guaranteed to enhance your listening skills. Withhold “I” – say “you.” Let me explain.
Typically, while someone is speaking, we’re not listening. We’re formulating. We’re thinking of what to say when they finally stop talking. When they finally stop, the first word out of our mouth is “I.” We say things like, “I think this” … or, “I’d do that” … or, “I want you to.
Unless we open our mouths to say, “I’d love to hear more,” saying “I” may steal the focus of a conversation from the speaker and shift it to the listener. Withholding “I,” at least for a few sentences, forces leaders to stay focused on others and their message.
When I lead listening exercises, I’ll have participants pair up for a “withholding I exercise.” The listener isn’t allowed to say “I” for 2.5 minutes. During the exercise they can’t even say, “I hear you saying.”
Universally, they say that withholding “I” is agonizing. Some say they can’t think of anything to say if they withhold “I.” Their mind goes blank. An inability to think of something other than “I” may indicate the depth of the listening problem.
If said improperly, saying “you” may sound like an accusation. For example, “You did what!” Or, “You’re wrong.” Avoid accusation. Saying “you” is simply a technique that trains your mind to focus on other people and their message.
The goal of this behavior is more than simply withholding “I.” The goal is making others feel listened to and valued.
The next time someone begins talking to you, don’t let yourself say “I” for at least one minute. Good luck.
What listening techniques do you use that make other’s feel listened to and valued?
Great advice Dan. I finally fixed this for myself by eliminating the compulsion to talk or offer advice at all.
Once I emptied myself completely of the need to offer help, I was left with only giving the opportunity for them to be heard.
It was a hard exercise for me at first to let go of the need to give suggestions but once I saw they were abel to create better results without my advice I stopped giving it.
You’ve taken the concept of withholding I to a new dimension! Thanks for sharing your own story.
Alan is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read is bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/alan
Excellent comment, Alan. I found the same thing. Sometimes as men I think we think that most things are tasks to complete or problems to solve. More often, they are just people to be listened to.
Dan, listening is definitely an under practiced art. I will attempt to elicit more information by asking, “Tell me more about…” as a follow-up question to something they said. I might also ask about the feelings behind the message. “That sounds like it was a really tough experience…”, “What did that feel like…”
You get the idea. I find that reflecting on the feelings behind the message is a way to demonstrate that you are really listening, but more importantly, may be more important than the content of the message itself.
The last thing I will do on a routine basis is seek clarity. “Let me make sure I understand what you are saying…” “Is what you are saying…” or “I need to clarify one thing you said…”
Listening is like rebounding a basketball. If you want to be good at it you have to WANT to do it. It’s about attitude. Affirmation of another person is best accomplished by listening and responding.
Great comment. I couldn’t agree more. Listening for emotion is a very powerful listening skill that creates a connection with the speaker. In the end that connection is a foundation that enhances our own influence in other’s lives.
Wow, this sounds challenging. I’ll give it a shot.
Great points Dan. Early on, a mentor provided this challenge. Cut out the “I” and “my”. Replace it with “we” and “our” in conversations with teamates or business partners. His lesson was that “we” invites the listener to participate and join into both discussion and agreement while “our” is a reinforcement.
Phrases like “What should we do?” “When we do this,…” “We have achieved…” reinforce team just as the possessive “our” versus “my” reinforces buy in, shared responsibility and credit.
So thank you Dan for inviting us into this discussion. As we share ideas, together we make a difference.
Thanks for adding to the conversation. You are making a difference. I’m glad we have the opportunity to connect.
Love the “we” approach.
You have my respect,
Thank YOU Dan. Have a great Thursday!
Love the idea!
It can be so difficult to truly listen, despite our best intentions – this technique can help us to listen in spite of ourselves (I’ve used a similar technique and found it to be quite effective!).
I’d also encourage this: the heart must be in the right place first – no amount of technique will make you a good listener if you just don’t care what others have to say.
Your comment is powerful.
I should have titled this post… “listen in spite of yourself.” I think I’ll go tweet it.
Love your heart comment. Well said.
Best to you,
Great post Dan.
In the safety world we use a technique known as Management By Observation. It is like like Management By Walking Around, but in this case it is safety focused. I had a client that wanted me to train the organization’s managers, but limited me to two-hour sessions. Busy people.
The session was called Promoting Safety Through Listening and it began with the following exercise:
How well do you think you listen? Well, I am going to give you a test – yes, a three-minute timed test – to see how well you follow directions. Oh, the test won’t count too much, but I am interested in how well you do on it. When I tell you to, I want you to read everything before you do anything, and follow the directions on the test exactly. Please leave the test face down on the table until I tell you to turn it over and begin. Remember, it is a timed test.
Hand out the one page test.
Are you all ready?
Okay, turn the test over and begin.
TEST – Can you follow instructions?
1. Print your name in the upper left hand corner of this paper.
2. Sign your name in the upper right hand corner.
3. Above the title of this test, print 123-456-7890.
4. Immediately above this number, print your area code and telephone number.
5. Add those two numbers together and put a box around your answer.
6. Circle the word “corner” in sentence one.
7. Draw two boxes around your signature.
8. Put an “X” on each side of each box.
9. Put a circle around the entire second sentence.
10. Put a “0” in the lower left hand corner of this paper.
11. Draw a triangle around the “0” you just wrote.
12. Draw a circle around the word “corner” in sentence number 6.
13. Put the name of your instructor in the lower left hand corner of this paper, next to the “0” and triangle you have drawn there.
14. Circle all of the odd sentence numbers.
15. When you get this far, without raising your hand, call out loud so your instructor can hear, “I AM FOLLOWING DIRECTIONS.”
16. Count from one to ten in your normal speaking voice.
17. Loudly call out your last name when you get to this point in the test.
18. If you have followed all instructions carefully to this point, call out “I HAVE.”
19. Say out loud, “I AM ABOUT TO FINISH.”
20. Now that you have finished reading carefully, do ONLY what you were instructed to do in sentence one.
I can’t tell you how many people did not follow the instructions.
This exercise was followed by grouping attendees into groups of three, let’s call them persons A, B and C. I tried to match folks that did not know each other well.
The instructions involved each sharing a three-minute story about themselves and then B telling A and C what A said, A telling B and C what C said and C telling A and B what B said. BTW, they did not know whose story they were going to have to repeat. Note taking was not allowed. It is a lot more difficult than you might think.
The key was to instill a sense of listening intently so that when they were back in their work area conducting their Management By Observations they actually listening to their employees and learning more about them and their work life.
Thank you so much for sharing this exercise Jim! I am definitely going to give it a try.
This experience is very useful in both the manufacturing and the interpersonal skills fields. It has worked for me effectively with teenagers who are learning about small group and presentation skills in addition to the adults who are learning how to supervise or mentor them and in previous work in a manufacturing environment teaching team skills to folks who used to simply “work the production machines.”
Thanks for sharing in detail!
This is a post that touches me for I am always teaching listening skills to sales, customer service, and technical teams — and learning more as I do it.
Listening is one of the most important professional people skills. The less you think “I” when someone else is speaking, the greater the chance you will hear that true message AND speak with a far more open mind. You can replace “I” with excellent questions about what the speaker is speaking about.
Total silence is not the best listening approach — contrary to popular belief. People have one of two natural listening styles. When I teach listening skills, I have participants spot the “speaker’s” natural listening style and use it with that person.
When done sincerely, it heightens the sense of being listened to and valued!
Have a great day.
Hi Dan – great post. I heard a great quote the other day (and don’t know who to attribute it to, sorry), that says 161. Effective Listening = not knowing what you will reply before the other is finished speaking. I am trying to incorporate that into my daily life, but this post builds on that and I will use this too – hard work, but worth it!
That sounds like a splendid exercise Dan, and a painful one as well. I could picture myself in that “I” examples, and I’ll try this as soon as I get a chance to be in a meeting (won’t be long, I can bet on that).
I personally like to ask a lot of questions to people, both for my personal curiosity and for the fact I think it’s important to always take into consideration the point of view of your employees since they are the ones that, in the end, are going to get things done under your lead.
Thanks Dan for offering a truly valuable and effective technique that everyone can practice!
(Perhaps the comments section of a blog could also be a good place to practice eliminating the “I” word. It certainly influenced my response!)
This (you messages vs I messages) is such a basic tenet of communication, from interpersonal to organizational. Yet it is so frequently ignored. I got busted once, however, when a friend was sharing a personal problem and I was doing my best “listening skills 101” routine when she said, “Hey, you’re doing that reflective listening thing to me aren’t you?” I suppose there are ways to be more subtle in applying “you” messages!!
Helping someone find a solution by using “you” messages instead of “I think you should” messages takes a lot longer but will result in an outcome that the person with the issue will be a lot more likely to be successful with. At the very least, they won’t have you to blame when things go wrong (and that IS what some people want – to have a third party to blame when things don’t work out).
I also find ths a perfect place to plug the use of “I” vs “You” messages in parenting. There are clearly some times when “I” messages are appropriate “I am not allowing you to drink a Mountain Dew at 9 am” and the like! but there are plenty of times when “you” messages are much more effective. With a 6th grader and a 9th grader, we often end up in conversations about perceived “wrongs” done by peers. It would be so very easy to say, “I think you should just ignore so-and-so” (and I’ll admit I still do that!) but it builds such a better longer lasting foundation to start with “and you really feel embarrassed when he calls you that” or anything else besides “here’s what you should do”.
Great reminder Dan! Your listening exercises would be great experiential practice! In my experience, especially with regard to someone asking advice, substituting “You might try…” instead of “I think you should….” works better. Most people looking for answers want to know they’ve been sincerely heard, but the perception of a know-it-all rarely helps. In this fast paced world, people are often too quick to respond (and cut-off even) with “I….” So taking a breath first before responding can be helpful.
Removing “I” is also an excellent marketing consideration! Makes me want to go back over my last newsletter!
Have an excellent day!
Maybe the next step could be witholding “have you…” as in “have you tried….” or “have you thought of…..” Whenever I am training people in coaching skills, and they start a sentence with this, its a good indication that the listener has formed their own solution and because they are on a coaching skills exercise they are shoehorning it into a question.
Great post as always! The same approach you describe above for enhanced listening also applies when using empathy. Old school classes on empathy have taught people to use “I” statements. Which as you pointed out shifts the focus from the talker to the listener and it’s not about you as the listener. Instead focus on how the person you are talking to is feeling and why they might be feeling that. There is nothing worse than having someone say “I understand” especially when they really don’t have a clue.
Thanks for sharing and continuing to add value!
This is such a valuable skill. Years ago in a manufacturing firm it was my responsibility to teach interpersonal skills and team development starting at management levels on through production and warehouse personnel. Guess who had the hardest time with holding “I”? Yep, management. They seemed to feel it threatened their authority.
In response to your question, it has been helpful in my work to ask questions that draw out more information rather than to reply to the person’s statement(s). For example, “Could you tell me more details about this situation?” or “It sounds like there may be some emotions involved. Am I hearing that correctly?” and to restate in the words of the speaker for clarification also helps, “If I heard you right, the situation involved A, B and C. Is that correct?” What this does is give the person time to feel heard and if necessary to clarify or add helpful details. When using a dry erase board it is helpful to write WORD FOR WORD what the person said or at least use the KEY words of the speaker rather than edit or rephrase them. These tools can move the conversation forward and toward the goal and build my skills as a listener and therefore the person who may need to help solve the problem or guide interaction. It also then becomes a template for how our leaders could lead by listening without saying it point blank!
Your point on I and You are really relevant. I is ego and you is accusation. Unfortunately, it is difficult to express without using I and You. It is really a technique that if mastered, might be a good leadership skill. Why not to start with what, why, whom, how and when. It will be easier to make good ground when Ego and Accusation do not take place.
My belief about listening skills is that one should start with putting what exist and why. It will address the main points. When lecturing in the class, my strategy is to question first and find out answer with putting a lot of why to the students . This strategy is effective and yiels optimistic outcome. The other listening techniques are using “We”.
Using “We” does not have either ego or accusation. In the post, my effort has been not to use I.