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RAC ‘Em Up! Psychology Provides a Powerful Key to Successful Communication

A self-managed work environment demands free and open communication.  When individuals need help from others, communication is request-not-command, since people in such a workplace only manage themselves, not others.  For a request to be effective, it stands to reason that the request should be delivered in a respectful manner designed to elicit a positive response.

More broadly: what modern company, self-managed or not, doesn’t claim to foster teamwork, open communication, and professional relationships? It’s easy to imagine the recruiting challenges for any organization advocating rigid hierarchy, arbitrary command authority, and threats from superiors.  Respectful communication is paramount.  While that concept sounds simple enough, it’s not necessarily intuitive for everyone.

Psychologists Stephanie Donaldson Pressman and Robert M. Pressman* offer some insight into the mechanics of respect that could easily apply to many conceivable work situations requiring effective communication—especially those involving requests that are complex, continuous, or involve multiple stakeholders.

They describe a formula called “I Feel…I Want” that has the potential to help individuals express themselves effectively. Expressing emotion is important, they say, because a) everyone has emotions, and b) everyone has a right to experience their own emotions (while we sometimes like to think we are creatures of logic, brain science tells us that it’s virtually impossible to make a decision without emotion**). And it’s important for most people to have their feelings heard. The problem occurs when people use ineffective methods to express feelings (name-calling, always/never references, kitchen-sinking, reciting ancient history, etc.) that result in bad outcomes (escalation, counterattack, permanent animosity). The psychologists note that very few people listen well when they are being attacked—they are inwardly preparing a counterattack.

Expressing feelings is crucial. Human beings generally do listen to expressions of emotion. Since these expressions describe the speaker only, they have an excellent chance of being heard. There is no defense to prepare, since there is no attack to defend against. The psychologists call this RAC (Respectful Adult Communication). They distinguish RAC from another commonly used term, assertiveness. While assertiveness may be perfectly functional and often appropriate, it has a negative connotation for many people. It also carries risks. If I simply assert something to a colleague—“I want you to provide the pricing information by 4 o’clock”, for example—what right do I have to expect my assertion to be respected? Do I know my colleague’s competing priorities? Her ability to deliver on my request? The current trust level between us? The kinds of language that resonate with my colleague’s personality type? Simple assertion runs the risk of misfiring, since I can’t possibly know everything that’s going on with that individual at that point in time. The power of “I” statements is profound–one paragon of self-management, W.L. Gore & Associates, intentionally develops associates’ skill in using “I” statements (part of the curriculum of Leadership Effectiveness Training, or L.E.T.).

Respectful Adult Communication can be a powerful key to opening doors. The “I Feel…I Want” formula allows an person to freely express his or her inner state of mind, which in turn leads an intended listener to actually listen. After achieving true two-way communication through honest self-revelation, it is possible to deliver even a complex request (the “I Want” part!) in a way that is most likely to succeed.


*  Stephanie Donaldson Pressman and Robert M. Pressman, The Narcissistic Family, Diagnosis and Treatment, Jossey-Bass, 1994, see Chapter 5.
**  The Economist, December 19, 2006, “Captain Kirk’s Revenge”.

Image credit: <a href=’’>yupiramos / 123RF Stock Photo</a>


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