Monthly Archives: March 2017

I- Message: The Essential Skill


February 28, 2017


“What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” sang Dione Warwick in the 1960′s.  Published in 1965 with lyrics by Hal David and music by Burt Bacharach, “What the World Needs Now is Love” was a blockbuster of a hit, recored by at least 100 of the best known singers of the time.  ”What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” they sang, “It’s the only thing that there’s too little of.”

Actually,  love is not the only thing of which we have “too little of.”   We could use more clean water and air,  enough food for the hungry,  quality education, health care for all, more functional families, good government, and perhaps most important, if not peace, then an absence of war, and on and on.

What the World Really Needs

The list of things that are needed besides “love, sweet love,”  is a long one, and even though progress has been made on some items, and some have been removed from the list, others are being added continuously.  In an earlier essay, I quoted the Buddha who said that we always have 83 problems. When we are able to remove one from the list another one takes its place, and so once again we have 83.  We will never have fewer than 83 problems, said the Buddha.

Organizational theorist Russell Ackoff used different words to express the same idea: “No matter how many  [problems] are solved,” he wrote,”  an infinite number will always remain to be solved.  Every solution to a problem generates several new problems, and the new ones are generally more challenging than the ones from which they sprang.”

And here we face a conundrum:  Most of the “solutions” to the 83 problems on our lists cannot not be successfully addressed by ourselves.  Most of our important problems involve other people,  and so whatever we do with them, other people must be involved. For many, this is unhappy news.  In a society that glorifies individualism and self-sufficiency, it is difficult to accept that almost everything we need or want in order to live satisfying and successful lives is under the control of other people.   Recognition, esteem, affection, respect, successful careers, honor, a successful family, nourishing food, clear water, flush toilets, come only becasuse people help us get them. And when it comes to relationships with others, what we need and want can be offered and made available, or they can be withheld.

Those of us who are good at involving and enlisting other people are fortunate.  ”People, people who need people,” sang Barbra Streisand in another song from the 1960′s,  “are the luckiest people in the world.”  And those who are consistently unsuccessful at cooperating with others are more than unlucky.  They are frequently relegated to the sidelines, destined to watch rather than be in the middle of the game.

What is the Question?

On the afternoon of the operation that resulted in her death, Gertrude Stein, confused and uncertain,  asked her companion, Alice Toklas,  ”What is the answer?”  When Toklas did not answer, Stein reportedly said, “Well then, what is the question?”

Evidently, Stein never got her answer.  But here is a question that in a way    is the question, and so one worth taking seriously:

“How can we increase our chances of being successful in our important relationships, in our careers, and in our lives?”

Here is The Answer – Cooperation

As it turns out, there is not only an answer but a best answer: By mastering the skills of cooperating and working successfully with other people. In his autobiography,  A Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela, among the most the most honored and respected leaders of our times, was unequivocal: “The central challenge of our times is finding a better way to work together and solve problems,” he wrote.  The social sciences agree.  Joshua Greene, among the most respected social psychologists in the United States and author of Moral Tribes:  Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them was equally clear:  ”The problem of cooperation is the central problem of social existence.”

Confronted by a continuous welter of problems that come at us in unpredictable ways and, at times, at warp speed,  and facing a reality that requires that we work with other people to address them effectively,  what “the world needs now” are ways to increase the chances of successful cooperation with others.

Here, then,  in a nutshell is our #1 challenge:  It is only by cooperating successfully with the important people in our lives – our spouses and partners, our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues and bosses at work,  - that we are able to find and live the Good Life. And yet, gaining that necessary cooperation is complicated, something many people are unable to achieve.

Cooperation is Easy, Difficult, and Impossible

Easy:  Under some circumstances cooperation is, as they say, a no-brainer.  Anyone can do it.  When there is little risk to our self-esteem; when there seems to be little cost in cooperation;  when we perceive that cooperation will bring benefits; and most importantly when we share interests – what I want is what you want and vice versa – then cooperation is an easy choice.

Difficult: In other situations, cooperation is difficult.  While there are many reasons for resisting cooperation, here are several of the most important ones:

- We prefer to stay home:  ”Home is where we start from,” writes poet T. S. Eliot in “East Coker.”   “As we grow older/The world becomes stranger, the patterns more complicated…”  Home is where we all started from and for most it was a place of safety and refuge.  If “home” is a metaphor for the known, the familiar, and the comfortable, then “leaving home,” – putting part of one’s hopes and aspiration into the hands of another – is often difficult.  One’s “comfort zone” turns out to be too comfortable.

- We decide that the immediate costs are high while the possible benefits are uncertain. When the prospect of cooperating with another person means added work, risks of failure,  and uncertainty about future benefits, many resist .

- When reality is limited only to what we can see or experience and we  are unable to see further than our own narrow reality, then cooperation   with others is an abstraction.  ”Every man takes the limits his field of vision for the limits of the world,” wrote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.   If we are confined to the limits of our own view of things,  the idea of cooperation with others makes no sense.  It exists as no more than questionable advice.

- We lack the needed skills to negotiate relationships that can result in effective cooperation.

Impossible: And finally there are times when, no matter the motivation, no matter the skill, no matter the importance, cooperation is an impossibility.  As in the old saying “It takes two to tango.”  If one person, or group is determined not to cooperate, then it won’t happen.  Cooperation can not be forced. Often, this refusal comes from one person’s demands to run the show, to make all decisions, to be in control.  An example is found in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. At one point in the novel, Lt. Commander Philip Queeg, in command of an antique minesweeper in the backwaters of WW II,  sends a message to his officers and crew:  ”Lt. Maryk, you may tell the crew for me that there are four ways of doing things aboard my ship:  The right way, the wrong way, the Navy way and my way.  They do things my way, and we’ll get along.”  If someone insists that it must be “my way”or nothing, then there can be no cooperation.

Where Do We Start?  Learn the I-Message

We start with this basic truth:  Any hope for success with almost all problems requires conversation.  And when the problem being addressed involves more than one person, the only way forward is for those conversations to focus upon cooperation.

Leaving aside situations where cooperation is easy or where it is impossible, becoming skilled in using the language of cooperation is the best alternative for improving the prospects for working together.  At the very center of conversations that lead to cooperation is a language structure that psychologists call the I- Message.  Basically, it is a message that one person sends to another or to a group with this information:  ”I am concerned about this issue, event, or situation.  It is important to me, and I would like your help in understanding it and deciding what should be done in order to make it better.”   It is among the most effective tools that helps us  move from what isn’t working now or hasn’t worked in the past to how we can work together now and in the future to make things better.

The the basic structure of an I-Message consists of four parts:

  1. A non-evaluative, timely description of a situation, event, or incident.  Three elements here are crucial: Description means that the event is public knowledge.  Anyone who paid attention could have seen it: “You interrupted  me three times in the last five minutes,” not “You are really rude!”  Non-evaluative means that you add no inference to suggest that what happened was either good or bad. You do not suggest that what happened was “dumb,” “stupid,” or “unbelievable.”  Timely means making reference to an event or situation that occured in the past, and the smaller the time gap between when it occurred and when it is discussed, the better.
  2. This is followed by an I-statement which communicates one’s emotional reaction to the event or situation  ( real problems always involve some level of emotional arousal):   “I am confused…”  ”I was frustrated..” “I was really upset..” “It made me very happy…”
  3. A signal that one is ready to listen to the other’s point-of-view:  ”I would appreciate hearing how you saw it.”
  4. A move to find a better way in the future: Once both parties have reported what they saw, heard, etc. the focus moves to working together to put in place more effective ways to deal with the problem in the future.

Here is a prototype of an I-Message exchange:

John:  I had expected to have the Acme Project report delivered to my office by 4:00 pm yesterday, something we had agreed to last week.  I had to wait until 7:00 pm  for it to arrive and by then it was too late to get it to the auditors.   I was really frustrated: first, because I didn’t get it at the time we agreed, and second, I couldn’t reach you and  had to wait around for it for almost three hours, and third, finance couldn’t sign off until this morning.  So now, we’re a whole day late in getting it to Cleveland.  I need to know what happened.

Mary:  John, it’s my fault. I feel terrible that I let you down.  I can go into all of the reasons but they would only sound like excuses.

John:  Well, I know that stuff happens, but this was really a blow to me.  I wanted that report out of here yesterday.   I do appreciate your owning up to it though. What I would like to talk about now is what can we do so it won’t happen again.

Adding Value with I-Messages

Skillful use of the I-Message helps us find our way through interpersonal issues that can be fraught with tension, resentment, and even danger. Here are some of the most important times when effective use of an I-Mesage adds great value:

  • Being Understood: First of all, and perhaps most important, we all want to be understood.  Effective use of I-Messages allows us to share with others how we feel, what we think, what is important, when we are confused, etc.  It is the gateway to being understood.
  • Dealing with Conflict, Misunderstanding and Disagreement:  Among all of the interpersonal challenges, facing conflict head-on is the one many people muff.  Often we avoid it when we can, and when we can’t,  trying to deal with it often make things worse.
  • Discipling and Correcting:  Another hurdle for almost everyone is communicating to others that their actions are unacceptable and need to change.  Most of us avoid the necessary and unpleasant role of being a disciplinarian – we all carry emotional scars from failed encounters – but there are times when it is necessary.
  • Expressing Appreciation: Strange as it sounds in the abstract, many us are uncomfortable expressing appreciation and gratitude.  I-messages are the most effective way of getting these  conversations underway (“Alice, I want to know how grateful I am for your support yesterday in the meeting.  You seemed to sense that I was groping for a way to go, and when you jumped in with your comments, it really got me out of a jam!”)
  • Telling the Truth: At some deep level, we want to tell “the truth,” and have it told back to us by others.  When a person accurately says when he or she thinks, wants, sees, hears, feels, – and does so accurately – that is as close to the truth as he or she can get.
  • Giving and Getting Feedback: Even though we often make strenuous efforts to avoid it, we all want – and need – feedback from others.  Useful feedback, the kind that can help us change from ineffectual behaviors to effective ones,  is best when it is given with timely and skillful use of the I-Message.
  • Being Recognized:  Among the most important things we want and need from others is to be recognized when we do good work.  Using an I-Mesage is the most effective way of  making sure these powerful messages are communicated.

Guidelines for Effective I-Messages

  1.  ”Own” the problem.  Signal that you care about this issue or situations and you want to see changes made.
  2. Examine your motives.  Do you want things to go better or do you want to get in a punch in the guise of wanting to help?
  3. Check to make sure that the time, place and situation are appropriate for a serious conversation.
  4. Describe the event, situation of behavior. (“We have been talking about the first item on the agenda for almost an hour.”)
  5. Share your reactions, feelings, opinions, preferences. (“I’m getting anxious that we won’t get much further before we run out of time”).
  6. Invite others to share their observations. (What do the rest of you think?”)
  7. Listen carefully to what people say.
  8. Clarify “gaps” in perceptions. (This is helpful.  I can see that I’m the only one who’s concerned.”)
  9. Work with others to find better ways of dealing with the issue.
  10. Continue until there is agreement of how to move forward.

Cooperation is Especially Difficult When the Problem is Wicked

When our problems are wicked, then cooperation goes beyond being desirable. It is essential. Examining in depth how author and educator Larry Cuban  defined wicked problems can help us understand why.

After almost 50 years as a educator,  Larry Cuban  summed up his career:  ”I had plenty of problems…to juggle.”  Eventually, as he wrestled with the challenges of teaching, of administering, and finally, as a professor,  conducting research into ways to improve educational effectiveness  and engineer school reform, he had an epiphany:  We have made so little progress in improving education, he decided, because we have not understood the problems we face are wicked and not tame.  Unless teachers, administers and researchers experience the same epiphany, he decided,  little progress with educational reform  could be expected.

In How Can I Fix It: Finding Solutions and Managing Dilemmas, he defined wicked problems this way:

Wicked problems are ill-defined, ambiguous, complicated, interconnected situations packed with potential conflict.  In organizations [and in relationships] people compete for limited resources, hold conflicting values, and wrestle with diverse expectations.

Why is cooperation so difficult? Here we find some important clues:

  • Ill-defined, ambiguous situations will result in our seeing things in different ways.  We will not agree on what’s going on, let alone what needs to be done;
  • Interconnected situations means that no one acts alone:  what one does affects everyone else;
  • Situations “packed” with conflict means that some kind of  ”fighting” is to be expected;
  • Competition for limited resources almost always leads to a dynamic situation where an individual or group goes after a win, which means that someone will have to lose.
  • Holding conflicting values means that there is danger that one side will be tempted to see the other side as wrong, unethical or, in the worst case, immoral.
  • When people hold different expectations about behaviors and projects, then judgements about effectiveness or progress will differ.

Each of these aspects of wicked problems is enough to derail even the best intentions at cooperation. Unless these dynamics are examined openly,  factored into the conversations, and then addressed appropriately, working together on “messy” issues becomes impossible.

I-Message is an Important Tool

In addition to “love, sweet love,” what the world needs now are better ways of working together – in short,  learning how to cooperate.   This is true not only for the world, but also for couples, work teams, organizations and governments.  When we find ourselves needing to cooperate with others in addressing difficult problems,  there is no skill more important that the effective use of the I-Message to initiate and sustain meaningful, productive conversations.

Skills are, in one sense, a set of tools, and effective use of the I-Message is among the most effective tool that is available to us for grappling with wicked problems. As the poet Marge Piercy says, there are times when we should “pick up a tool..and get ready to make it new.”

 Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool.  Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.