Danger ahead! You may not even realize you're making these deadly communication mistakes.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all know we should use "I statements" when speaking with someone about a difficult topic. They offer clarity regarding our thinking and feeling about an event, and keep us calm and respectful by moving us away from blame.
Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.
But if you’ve ever actually tried to use this strategy in the middle of a heated discussion at any age, you know it can be a little tricky, like trying to color within the lines or hold your pee until the next bathroom break.
Read on for a bit of remedial help in implementing this important, but often misunderstood, kindergarten mandate.
Stop disguising selfish demands as "I statements."
Contrary to public opinion, simply putting the words "I feel" or "I think" in front of a sentence does not a true I statement make. The "I feel" statement can be particularly difficult to craft well, and the result is that many imposters abound. Here’s how to spot the little rascals ...
- "I feel you need to spend more time at home." So, this is not really an expression of your feeling, but another way of giving your partner a sort of duty or command, as in, "You should spend more time at home."
- "I feel you are being selfish." This is a rather clever way to label and/or criticize your partner without actually appearing to do this. AKA, "You are selfish."
- "I feel I am right about this." Sneaky. But, no. "I am right about this" is not a feeling; it’s an assertion of the superiority of your viewpoint. What you are really saying here is, "You are wrong."
So the above communications, while purporting to be I statements, are really just other ways of saying, "You should" or "You are." They are actually, then, "you statements," which are a big no-no in difficult or heated conversations because they have a tendency to make people want to hit you.
Tell us how you really feel.
Simply put, a true I statement should express your authentic feeling in a non-blaming way. So consider your emotional state of mind, find the right word to describe it, and then speak that description out loud. As in, "I feel sad right now." Easy, right?
You can even say, "I feel sad when you spend so much time at the office," but notice the use of the word "when" as opposed to "because." "Because" implies causation and, thus, blame. And when people feel blamed, they tend to stop listening to you.
Can't figure out how you feel? There's an "I statement" for that too.
The happy truth is that it's okay to be uncertain about exactly what you're feeling. Feelings can be complicated. They can come in layers, or can change over time, even as you are speaking. But the complicated nature of feelings shouldn’t prevent you from using an I statement, because an I statement can express where you stand on things at any particular moment. Just change the statement above to something like, "I think what I’m feeling is sadness," or "Part of what I’m feeling is sadness," or "What I’m feeling right now is sadness," and there you go!
Communication is power.
The true power of the I statement is ultimately about how it reframes the situation in which we find ourselves in a way that reveals the choices we have. If we blame someone else for of our state of mind, if it is ultimately someone else’s fault that we feel the way we do, what hope do we have of changing or choosing how to express these feelings? None. Nada. Zilch.
But if we acknowledge ownership of our feelings, we also acknowledge that we have the power to change and manage them. And acknowledging this power is the first step to actually feeling better. We can choose whether or not to feel angry when our teenager leaves her clothes on the floor. We can choose how to express our frustration at our mother for telling us how we should live our lives, and we can decide just how we want to handle feelings of sadness or loneliness that arise when our partner spends so much time at the office.
In short, I statements can help us communicate more effectively, not only with others, but also with ourselves. And that is their real power.
Anne Barker is a writer and psychotherapist in Omaha, NE, specializing in working with couples and individuals on all manner of relationship issues. Visit Anne’s relationship blog at Hitch Fix or her website to find out more about her writing and services.
This article was originally published at Barker Therapy Arts. Reprinted with permission from the author.