Do you find yourself wishing that people would understand and respect your opinions more than they seem to? Do you compare yourself negatively to others who seem to have an uncanny ability to influence others? Are you dissatisfied with your ability to take conversations deeper, to a place where people really open up and trust you? Do you hold back, trying to avoid conflict and “be nice”? Or, to tend to plunge headlong into conflict, “keeping it real”, only to find these conflicts become worse than how they began? If any of this sounds familiar, I’ve got a communication power tool for you.
I used to experience all of these frustrations in my relationships much more frequently than I do today. One tool I learned to use that helps with all of these situations is something we at The Integral Center call Owning Your Experience.
Here’s a picture of what happens when I don’t own my experience—I speak in generalities, expressing my beliefs as though they were facts about reality. For example, “life is hard” or “people are difficult” or “women are confusing” or “in a situation like this, what you gotta understand is that..” or, “you should…” When I do this, I come across with a direct and authoritative tone. (This may be appropriate in some contexts, for example, if you’re publishing content as an expert in your field.) I find for face to face conversations with friends, family, intimate partners, and colleagues, this tone doesn’t usually go over very well.
What I found was speaking this way, as though my opinions were facts, would cause others to become defensive. The conversations tended to be about who was right and who was wrong. This made sense to me because it seemed natural to me that finding agreement as to what was right was the best way to get on the same page with someone else.
What I didn’t realize is that there is a better way to get on the same page with someone. By owning my experience, I would make it more likely that my perspective would be understood and respected. I became more trustable, and with that, I became more persuasive. Conversations became more collaborative rather than combative. I handled conflict effectively. People began opening up more with me, and I was able to take conversations to a richer and deeper level more consistently.
Here’s how this works...
First, a Litmus Test
The telltale sign that you’re not Owning Your Experience is that your communication is worded in a way that could be argued. Particularly when these assertions are about people in general, or about your listener, they’re more likely to react negatively, perhaps feeling labeled, limited, or judged prematurely. They’ll probably feel defensive or protective. They’re likely to justify or to explain themselves. They’ll be prone to actually argue your point. They may even close down or write you off as someone they don’t want to engage with.
When you are Owning Your Experience, you communicate your thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs, etc. as your experience, which cannot be argued.
So, how can you learn to Own Your Experience? Keep in mind this litmus test as you try out these tips.
Notice Your Language
As you're getting started, you might notice yourself making an assertion about reality like “It is…” or “You are…” or “They are…” Those moments could become cues to catch yourself not Owning Your Experience (that is, it could be argued). Once you notice that, you could tack on something like “...in my experience” after the assertion, “owning it” midstream. As you become a little more adept, you might catch yourself before making an assertion, and instead say something like “In my experience, you are…” As you’re getting the hang of catching yourself before speaking, another simple tip is to try starting your statements with “I…” instead of “You are... “ “It is…” or “They are…”
Noticing your language and making these small adjustments is only the beginning.
Express Beliefs Clearly
We tend to filter our experiences through our beliefs about reality. In each new situation, this usually becomes a narrative about what is happening and the meaning of the events we are experiencing. When we aren’t owning our experience, we’ll make statements as though our narrative was factual and the meaning we make is true.
To own these belief and narratives, instead say something like “a story I have is that…” or “the meaning I’m making of this is…” or “what I think is happening is…” or “I imagine that…” Even if this wording seems laborious to you, I’ve found that it helps relax people’s defenses and be more open to listening to me. Sometimes you might be missing important facts and your interpretation is way off. In these moments of choosing to own my experience, not only does it become more likely that I’ll get on the same page with others, it’s actually more accurate to make statements with ownership language.
Describe Observations Precisely
Use objective language only where it's appropriate. When you describe something you observe, use precise language that’s unlikely to be open for debate. Instead of “you always…” or “you never…” you would instead say “last wednesday you did/didn’t…” Observation language is value neutral, that is, your descriptions would closely match what anyone else might say if asked to neutrally report on the content of an audio recording of a conversation or a video recording of a situation. Instead of, “You were angry…” instead say something like “You said…” Instead of saying “it’s too hot” instead try “at this temperature, I feel too hot.” This example leads naturally into the next tip.
Express Feelings Cleanly
Using the expression “I feel…” is a good move towards Owning Your Experience, because feelings are subjective, and can’t be argued, right? Yes. However, frequently people don’t use feelings after they say “I feel…” Learn to notice when your thoughts and beliefs are smuggled and expressed as though they were feelings. Pay attention when you say something like “I feel you are...” or “I feel people are…” or “I feel that…” or “I feel like…” or “I feel it is…” or “I feel as if…” In these cases you are probably feeling something, but instead of expressing that feeling directly, you’ve inadvertently inserted a thought or assessment. To express your feelings clearly, try using only feeling words like “sad”, “happy”, “angry”, “frustrated”, “uncomfortable”, or “confused” after “I feel…”
Reveal Your Values
Most of what we do is motivated by some underlying values we hold. The same goes for our communication. You can better learn to own your experience when you’re aware of the values you’re holding and revealing these to your listener. Consider the values you hold most dearly. Perhaps some, if not most of these will ring true for you at a deep level—peace, health, safety, fairness, justice, love, growth, efficiency, learning, success, harmony, effectiveness, or connection. Values range widely and are not limited to this list. They are often shared by most people, though not always with the same priority or emphasis. It’s likely that one or more of your values is underlying any given communication you express. Revealing these can give your listener the opportunity to understand and appreciate where you are coming from.
Make Implicit Requests Explicit
Often, we have an implicit requests when we’re expressing ourselves to someone. For example, you might say “I wish these dishes were clean!” and you’re hoping your listener picks up on the hint, and cleans up the dishes. Hinted requests, not made explicit, are often labeled “passive aggressive” (a phrase that is yet another un-owned judgment—I don’t recommend accusing people of it). Think of a time when you were on the receiving end of someone hinting at a request like this. I imagine that didn’t feel good. It might have brought up a feeling of resistance to the request, or even brought up feelings of resentment towards the person. You might be surprised when you start getting a sense of the implicit requests that you’re making. As you do, it might feel risky to make them explicit because it gives the other person the chance to refuse, but I think you’ll start finding that the trust and mutuality this way of relating builds to be more satisfying.
A Shift in Perspective
These tips emphasize how to word your communication to better Own Your Experience. Once you’ve been practicing these shifts in language, you’ll probably find your perspective shifting. As your perspective shifts towards a recognition of humility and uncertainty, you’ll likely to bring more curiosity, openness, and understanding. Shifting toward a recognition of how you author the narratives and meanings you give to events will likely bring more freedom, possibility, and power.
I find some people tend to learn to own their experience by focusing primarily on the language adjustments as I described, while I find other people tend to learn this better by focusing primarily on these shifts in perspective. Most often it takes a little of both language and perspective (and a whole lot of practice). As your language changes, your perspective will tend to shift. And, as your perspective shifts, your language will naturally come out differently. When you start to notice this interplay, you’re on the path of mastery in the art of Owning Your Experience and Authentic Relating.
There’s something extraordinary that’s likely to happen as you develop competency at Owning Your Experience—a radical sense of empowerment. Instead of going through life believing you are at the effect of circumstances or the choices of others, you’ll recognize your freedom and your power to choose how you respond in every situation. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor summed this up beautifully in his book Man’s Search for Meaning—
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
At the core of Owning Your Experience is choosing to encounter reality just as it is rather than believing that it should already be different. When you believe it should already be different, you’ll likely limit your options. When you welcome everything as it is—from people’s behaviors, to your emotions and desires, to the narratives and explanations you use to make sense of your life, you’ll experience a larger and more expansive sense of possibility.