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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Crucial Accountability" by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, et al.. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are contrasting statements? How can you use them to build trust and mutual respect in a discussion?

In the book Crucial Accountability, the authors talk about how contrasting statements can build mutual respect when the other person is feeling unsafe in a conversation. Contrasting statements are the building blocks of good discussions, whereas feeling a lack of mutual respect and having different motives ruins them.

Keep reading to learn how to use contrasting statements to build mutual respect in a relationship.

Mutual Respect

The authors write that if you think the other person is feeling unsafe due to a perceived lack of respect, you can use contrasting statements. Contrasting is when we reassure the other person that their negative perception of our intent is inaccurate by contrasting it with what our (more positive) intent actually is.

To use contrasting statements, try to understand why the other person might feel disrespected. Next, explain to them that this is not what you mean. Last, tie in the contrasting point by explaining what you do mean.

For example, if your business partner is habitually making decisions without you, they might assume that you’re bringing up the issue because you think they make bad decisions. You can use contrasting statements to put them at ease by saying: “I don’t want you to think I’m unhappy with the decisions you’ve made. They’re good decisions and I support them. But, I’d like to be more involved in the process to ensure we both agree on decisions before they’re executed.”`

Using “I” Language

Experts explain that another way to establish mutual respect is by using “I” language. “I” language is when we focus the issue on our own emotions, feelings, and problems by using the pronoun “I.” Using “you” language, on the other hand, puts the focus of the discussion on the other person’s shortcomings and frames them as personally responsible for the issue. This can make them feel disrespected, embarrassed, or belittled.

An example of “you” language would be “you were supposed to hand in that project on Monday, and now you’re holding up the presentation.” This sounds like you’re blaming the other person and intentionally making them feel bad. Instead, we could phrase the same issue using “I” language: “I’m getting stressed that I don’t have that project yet. I’m going to have to reschedule the presentation if I don’t get it soon.” In the second example, you avoid blaming and accusing the other person while also owning your feelings and addressing your concerns. It’s an effective way to bring up the accountability issue while ensuring the other person feels respected rather than blamed.

The authors don’t specifically mention using “I” language, but their examples and discussions consistently use this technique. For example, contrasting models using “I” language by redirecting the conversation away from blaming or accusing the other person (which is what they think you’re doing) and back to focusing on your intent and perspective.

Mutual Purpose

Contrasting statements can be used to develop mutual purpose as well. The authors explain that if the other person begins to feel like the purpose of the conversation is only serving you and that you’re not considering their best interests, they are likely to feel unsafe. They might think that you brought up the issue with ulterior motives: to embarrass them, force them into something they don’t want, take away their authority, or cause them distress.

To reestablish mutual purpose, clarify your intent: solving a problem that impacts both of you while maintaining a positive relationship.

  • For example, you might say, “The reason I wanted to discuss the decision-making process is so we both feel more comfortable with the final decision. If only one of us is making decisions, that person holds more responsibility and stress than the other. If we work together, we can share the burden and have an extra set of eyes checking our ideas for flaws.”

(Shortform note: Establishing a mutual purpose or goal shouldn’t only become important when you’re having an accountability conversation. Establishing a mutual purpose in workplaces and personal relationships fosters productivity and can actually prevent accountability issues from occurring in the first place. In The Oz Principle, Craig Hickman, Roger Conners, and Tom Smith explain that when people within a company aren’t on the same page about shared goals, it can lead to a lack of focus and unity, likely resulting in accountability issues or at least a decrease in productivity. So, to avoid accountability issues in the first place, make sure everyone in your unit, whether it be your family or workplace, is working towards a clearly defined and acknowledged purpose or goal.)

The Third Horseman of the Apocalypse: Criticism

In this part, the authors emphasize the importance of starting your conversation by establishing mutual respect and a shared purpose, and by maintaining these throughout. This is because without a shared purpose of improving the relationship, we could easily let our heated emotions get the best of us and end up venting our complaints about the other person during the conversation. If this happens, we’re ultimately falling prey to Gottman’s third horseman of a relational apocalypse: criticism.

Criticism happens when, rather than entering the conversation with the goal of working together to better the relationship, our goal is self-serving—to make the other person feel bad for their actions and having wronged us. When we criticize the other person, there is no mutual purpose or respect involved. 

As one of the Four Horsemen, criticism has the potential to end a relationship. To avoid criticizing the other person (and possibly causing relationship termination) be sure to enter the conversation with, and maintain, mutual respect and shared purpose—this will help you avoid falling into the realm of criticism.
Contrasting Statements: Useful Tools For Trustbuilding

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  • How to broach sensitive conversations with loved ones and coworkers
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