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Owning Experience

Communicate Responsibly for Connection and Potency
Michael Porcelli
January 12, 2024

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, do you 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 called owning experience.

The Problem

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 express myself 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 after 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.

How it Works

First, a litmus test:

The test 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 beliefs 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…” say something like “You said…” Instead of saying “it’s too hot”, try “I feel too hot” This example leads naturally to 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…” (though this is common usage, it doesn’t work to express actual feelings). 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 motivating 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 request 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 label 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 bring more curiosity, openness, and understanding. Shifting toward 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 MetaRelating.

The #1 Pitfall

When I first learned how to own my experience, my ears became hyper-sensitive to when others were not owning their experience and I would really want them to change. If you’re like most people who I’ve seen, you’ll probably experience this too.

I think wanting everyone to get better at owning their experience is just fine. I’m writing this because this is also something I want. But you may find yourself tempted to do more than just own your own experience, you might be tempted mid-conversation, to get others to own their experience. I think this is the #1 pitfall you’re likely to encounter as a beginner. So, I emphatically recommend against saying things like “hey, would you please own your experience.”

Do not tell others to own their experience.

Instead, I encourage you to install an internal translator where you do your best to own their experience for them by imagining your best guess as to what their observations, beliefs, feelings, values, requests might be. Under many circumstances, this is likely straightforward.

If you’re clear as to what they’re trying to communicate, you can just check out your guesses to see if you understood them properly. So long as you’re checking out your guesses when you’re not so sure, and you’re open and willing for the other person to offer a correction, you’re on the right track.

(If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s not original. Fred Kofman, in his book Conscious Business, described this as “taking 200% responsibility.” Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Non-Violent Communication calls this listening with “giraffe ears.”)

When you’re listening in this way, you’ll tend to experience a sense of connection to the other person’s underlying values. By doing this, you’ll be more aware of your shared humanity, something in common, rather than any differences that might be coming between you at the moment.

Remember values are typically shared by most people. What differs between us typically arises from the specifics of the circumstance. We often make different choices as to how and when our values come into play.

Radical Empowerment

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.”

— Viktor Frankl

At the core of owning 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.

MetaRelating is an innovative approach to communicating effectively about your relationships, whether personal or professional. We’ve designed our practices for individual professionals and organizations who are ready to develop emotional, social, and relational skills in a no-nonsense way that is easy to learn. Get our free e-book for a concise introduction, and opt-in to our newsletter to stay up to date with our latest resources, events, and training courses.