Plus, here's how to fix the problem and communicate better!
Every couple knows that "I statements" are the holy grail of communicating well in a relationship. Only, it turns out ... those "I statements" can accidently cause some pretty big fights if you make one very common mistake. Well-intentioned couples think they have the use of "I feel" statements down, but somehow their message isn't heard and misunderstandings keep firing off left and right.
So, what's the problem? Why isn't it working?
To explain, let me first remind you of that catchy School House Rock song "Conjunction Junction." What exactly do conjunctions have to do with healthy communication? Well, quite a bit actually because when you mix conjunctions (words like: "that," "like," "as," or "if") with "I feel" statements, the combination creates communication quicksand — a trap, very few couples see coming or can easily pull themselves free from.
Let's look at some examples of this toxic combination of "I feel" statements poisoned by a conjunction:
- I feel like you aren't interested in what I'm trying to tell you.
- I feel that you aren't hearing what I am saying.
- I feel as if you've made up your mind.
What you're trying to communicate to your partner is: "I feel misunderstood and alone." (I feel + feeling)
But, what you're actually saying is: "You aren't hearing me, you aren't interested, and you're not listening to my point of view" (a hidden "you" statement = criticism).
So, the good news is: You're halfway there by using "I feel" at the start of your sentence. But, your message went off track when you slipped in those pesky conjunctions, which turned a feeling statement into a sneaky "you" statement. It comes across passive-aggressive, like a loaded statement laced with darts to your partner.
No worries though, it happens to all of us. And we all do it to others by mistake, as well.
The problem is that instead of hearing your feelings (that you don't feel "heard," "valued," or "understood"), your partner hears your opinion, and, in this case, also accusation that they are not listening, aren't interested, and have made up their mind already.
Opinions (and certainly accusations) drive defensive responses, not the understanding and compassion you're seeking.
Here's the key you need to fix this problem: Make sure to follow your "I feel" with an actual feeling (i.e. sad, frustrated, confused, alone). Otherwise, what you say is no longer a feeling statement and it loses its capacity to evoke empathy. When you connect your "I feel" statements with thoughts/opinions, you're partner feels put on the defensive versus feeling pulled toward hearing you and understanding your feelings and needs.
While this is easy to understand, avoiding this trap can be surprisingly challenging for all of us. Remember, positive communication is a cornerstone of relationship health, so here are a six reminders to help you avoid "I statement" + conjunction quicksand:
1. Remember: Conjunctions aren't feelings.
Conjunctions ("like", "that", "as if") are your warning that you're headed into the accusation zone. When those seemingly harmless little words roll off your tongue, notice what's happening and take a moment.
2. "You" statements aren't feelings either.
When you catch yourself beginning sentences with "you," know that you're heading into dangerous territory (unless, of course, you're conveying empathy). "You" statements are risky. A much safer bet is always the trusted "I feel + a feeling" statement.
3. Expand your collection of feeling words.
Always directly follow the phrase, "I feel" with an actual feeling (i.e. happy, relieved, sorry, lonely). Practice using feeling words in your speech to broaden your emotional vocabulary so it becomes easier to choose the right feelings when you need one most. If building a feeling vocabulary doesn't come naturally, there are online feeling lists available to help.
4. Translate your thoughts into feelings.
Look to rephrase the conjunction-following clause with a descriptive feeling or two. Use "I feel" as a verb, not with a conjunction, and see what happens. For example, the above examples could be translated into: I feel uncomfortable as I'm talking. I'm trying to talk to you and I am feeling somewhat unheard, and shut out from your decision-making. (I feel + feeling)
5. Look for opportunities to practice.
Practice doing this whenever you can — especially with friends and loved ones in low stress situations. In your relationship, bravely be the first one to try this with your partner. Communication is like a highway, and deciding to choose a different path can positively reroute your interactions down the road.
6. Expect it to feel a bit clunky at first.
This way of communicating will likely feel awkward and unnatural initially, especially when you feel stressed. If you mess up, don't feel too bad. Everyone struggles with this and no one ever communicates perfectly every single time.
When you feel something strongly, the reactive part of your brain (the limbic system) always fires first, making it hard to exert control over your communication. But with practice, the thinking part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) gets more and more involved and helps you think through your words.
So, just ask your partner for a pause, collect your thoughts and try again. If you love someone, you can do this ... with practice.
The fact that you're already trying to use 'I' statements means you clearly value healthy communication. Taking out conjunctions will definitely feel difficult because naming your true feelings makes you vulnerable.
It takes enormous love and courage to tell someone how you really feel but those truly honest statements nurture your relationship with the one you love.
Positive communication is always something worth continually practicing, so show up for each other with a little mercy and grace. Give each other some breathing room, yourself included. When you stumble, resist giving up, and resolve to keep practicing. Remember, you're half way there, and your relationship is worth it.
If you feel like you could use a bit more help with positive communication, sign up for Alicia Clark's relationships blog, or check out her website, where you'll find more information on maintaining connection, stress management, and wellness.