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Clear Water Lake

Generalities v. Specifics


“Everybody craves intimacy.” “You have to show your vulnerability.” Do they? What do you mean by intimacy? By vulnerability?


I heard those generalities so many times at a conference in sentences that didn’t make sense to me that I finally looked up the definition of “vulnerability.” Its primary definition is “weakness,” which is how I have always understood it, whether you are talking about an enemy’s army or your own “Achilles’ Heel.” But I’m not sure that clients or team members want to hear about personal “weakness” from their consultants or coaches, or from their team leaders, as weakness can mean a lack of expertise (which is what they’re paying you for). Instead, people meant “vulnerable” in the sense of showing your humanity, being as imperfect as the next person, making it possible to be more open, flexible, collaborative, and willing to listen, in short, approachable.


People make a lot of very general statements (just like this one) and assume we all understand them the same way, but universal understanding is hard to achieve. Generalities have very different meanings to each individual in a group based on their own life experiences. When a generality doesn’t apply to the listener that person tries to understand the more precise meaning, or just stops listening entirely. The intention of the statement is undermined and the audience lost.


In a different conference session, though, I heard a new language pattern that gets around the assumptions and inferences of generalities that might not apply to everyone. Josh Decker suggested the pattern of:

  • I notice . . .

  • I imagine . . .

  • I feel . . .


Statements based on that pattern are so clear and specific that they have much more impact than a generality that implies a set of assumptions that might be incorrect. For example, in an exercise done in pairs, we were asked to use that pattern to say something about our partners.

  • “I notice” had to be something that was a fact, something that was not up for interpretation.

  • “I imagine” was an opportunity to state what the observation meant or implied to the speaker and was quite specific to the person about whom it was made; it was not a generality.

  • “I feel” was about the meaning or impact of that observation on the speaker.


In one exercise, my partner said she noticed that I had red hair, was wearing a red jacket, and wore two large-ish rings. She imagined that part of me was very bold. She felt inspired by that perceived boldness, which as you can imagine, was very gratifying to me, since I almost skipped the conference because the group and the exercises seemed intimidating. I felt anything but bold. I will say, though, that her comment taught me something about myself that I didn’t know, and maybe that was the point.


After that session, I heard that language pattern repeated over and over again in general conversation, and each time it felt more and more right. Not only is it a way to provide effective, positive feedback, it is also a way to frame what might be thought of as negative criticism that might generate defensiveness. For example, “I notice that you just rolled your eyes when I made that last statement. I imagine that means that you don’t agree and think that idea might even be dumb. I feel we should talk about that, since it’s quite important to me.”


A follow-up statement might be “I’m curious” either to know how or why, or about, or another set of words that opens the door to discussion and greater understanding. So much nicer and softer than, “Why?”


Like “I statements” the language can be changed to suit your own speaking style, but the changes should fit the pattern. For example, you might want to say “I see” instead of “I notice.” As long as the first statement is a statement of a fact or observation that is not up for reinterpretation and does not include an assumption, that’s OK. However, changing “I imagine” to “I assume” could easily generate a response of something like, “don’t assume anything about me.” The speaker’s feeling is important to clarify, because the listener becomes aware of the impact of what has been noticed.

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