If you’ve been reading Dr. Allison over the last several months, you’re probably aware that I’m a big fan of emotions. And relationships. And difficult conversations. Three things that don’t necessary get everybody pumped up, especially when we talk about them together. Emotions, relationships, and difficult conversations. They’re a tricky combination, but an important one. So today, I’m going to share one of my favorite strategies for tackling them together. Are you ready? Sweet. Let’s talk about “I statements.”
“I statements” are a concept often seen in couples therapy, but they also have a ton of value outside of romantic relationships. “I statements” are an awesome tool for effective communication, whether it be at home, at work, with friends, or with that less than helpful customer service rep you’ve been on hold with for twenty minutes.
“I statements” provide an opportunity to talk about our emotional experience in a healthy way, reducing blame and finger pointing, warding off defensiveness and escalation. It’s a small, seemingly simple change that can make a huge difference, especially when we’re talking about difficult stuff.
Perhaps an example is the easiest way to start.
Jordan and Taylor have been together for several years, and they have had increased tension over the last several weeks about managing the demands of their busy lives. Jordan says, “You don’t listen to me. You don’t get it. All you care about is the now; you don’t think about the future. Taylor says, “You don’t give me a chance. You nag me about everything. You don’t see how hard I work.”
How do you think that conversation went? Yeeeeah, not so great. The primary reason? The finger pointing, the “you statements.” When we tell our partner, or anyone we are communicating with, that THEY do this, THEY make us feel something, or THEY are responsible, we put 100% of the blame on them. We deny that our own life experiences, baggage, current mood, and “stuff” are at play. This typically induces immediate defensiveness by the other party, who typically shoots back with a, “Well YOU do this, and YOU always say this.” And we are officially getting nowhere.
“I statements” take ownership of the way we feel and acknowledge our experience as OUR experience, nothing more, nothing less. “I statements” communicate how we feel without assigning blame.
Let’s give Jordan and Taylor another shot. “I feel unheard. I wish you understood what I was trying to say. I feel like you don’t think about our family’s future. “I feel like you don’t believe in me. I feel dismissed and discounted. I want to feel appreciated.”
Can you see how that conversation sounds different? Less finger pointing, less blaming, more owning and acknowledging one’s experience as their own. It doesn’t mean that the conversation is going to be easy or comfortable; we’re still dealing with conflict after all. Yet, “I statements” absolutely make a difference in the quality of the conversation.
At this point, I hope you’re on board with “I statements.” However, I’ll warn you, “I statements” sound easy in theory, yet they are a lot more difficult to implement, especially when emotions are high and old habits are in full effect.
Let’s practice reframing some not so helpful statements to healthier, more effective “I statements.”
My boss is clueless; she has no idea that her staff is so unhappy.
I feel like my boss doesn’t understand her employees. I’m unhappy at work.
You keep saying you hear me, but you don’t ever change anything.
I feel like we have this conversation often, yet we can’t seem to change.
What were you thinking? You should have known better!
I’m surprised; I don’t understand what you were thinking. I feel like we have taught you better.
You don’t stand up for me. You let your mother walk all over me.
I feel like I’m completely on my own. I want you to stand up for me when your mom criticizes me.
Even if you just place the words “I feel” in front of whatever you were originally going to say, that can diffuse the tension enough to make some headway. Using “I feel” acknowledges that your stuff, your mood, and your personality are influencing your experience.
Utilizing “I statements” seems easy, until we try it. (Cue initial belly flop.) The reality is “I statements” take work. They involve effort and energy. They require slowing down and reframing a statement that was going to slide off the tongue so easily. They involve breaking communication habits that have been present for years. However, if you want more effective and healthy communication, you’ll make time for “I statements,” lowering that pointed finger, owning your experience, and making room for healthy dialogue.
Try using “I statements” this week, see how they feel, and notice the difference they make in your communication with others. I want to hear how it goes!
PS: I’m on Facebook, and I post lots of additional tools, tips, and inspiration there. Come find me here!