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Want to Make Difficult Conversations Easier? Use This Bob Dylan-Inspired Phrase, Says Bestselling Author Susan Cain

Roberto Mancini | Twenty20

If you're a folk music aficionado, you might be familiar with this line: "Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there."

It's from singer-songwriter Joan Baez's 1975 song "Diamonds and Rust," widely thought to be inspired by Baez's relationship with Bob Dylan. And according to bestselling author Susan Cain, it holds the key to making difficult conversations a lot easier.

The author appeared on Simon Sinek's "A Bit of Optimism" podcast last month to discuss her latest book, "Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Makes Us Whole," which focuses on the power of a bittersweet, melancholic state of mind.

The song's lyrics certainly qualify as bittersweet, but the line's most rhetorically useful aspect is more about that line's first four words, Cain said: "Speaking strictly for me."

Sinek backed her up: "Can you imagine if every opinion that someone expressed, political or otherwise, started with 'Speaking strictly for me?' How disarming that is, but also how open-minded that is." 

That simple phrase does several key things at once, by Cain and Sinek's estimation — all of which can help when navigating difficult conversations.

For starters, it mirrors the oft-recommended "I" over "you" statements that relationship counselors talk about. Generally, "I" statements — like "I feel" and "I think" — are seen as soliciting more positive responses than accusatory "you" statements, though there's some debate to the concept's one-size-fits-all effectiveness.

"If you say 'I feel this way,' it's heard in a much better way than 'You always do this,'" Cain said. "'Speaking strictly for me' is another version ... of an 'I' statement." 

Because of that, the phrase can put a listener at ease. "Their shoulders relax as soon as they hear that phrase," Cain said. "Nothing exactly is required of me right now. All I have to do is listen."

Similarly, using "speaking strictly for me" provides the person you're talking to with a condensed instruction manual on how you want them to respond, Sinek said.

"When we have a difficult conversation with somebody where we need them to hold space, there's an expectation that they have the skill set on how to hold space," he said. "When I say 'Speaking strictly for me,' I'm giving them instructions and clues on how to hold space." 

Finally, the phrase can help in conversations where both people are at least partially "right." By making your side of the argument clear, saying "speaking strictly for me," can help encompass some of that gray area. 

"What [the phrase] does is ... it allows a conversation of bitterness, sadness, hardness, it allows those conversations to be received as they are intended," Sinek said, rather than as accusations or judgments.

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