Good Communication through I-Statements
Robert McGarey, M.A.
When a relationship has been soured by misunderstandings, poisoned by distrust or bruised by hurt feelings, it’s hard to communicate with each other effectively. What’s needed is some way to rebuild a foundation of trust and cooperation between us and our partner. The most sure-fire way to build that foundation is with I-Statements.
What I-Statements Are
I-Statements give our partner information about us, and they do it in a way that’s far less threatening than the alternative: You-Statements. They form the bedrock for cooperation because they connect people, build trust, and create healthier, more open and honest relationships.
Like magic, I-Statements and You-Statements trigger predictable responses from others, time after time. Let’s try an experiment. Here’s a list of You-Statements. Imagine that your partner is saying them to you. What kind of emotional responses bubble up inside of you as you hear them?
- You are crazy.
- You should be ashamed.
- You are right.
- You are wrong.
- You are wonderful.
- You are smart.
- You can do it.
- You could do better.
- You can’t.
Chances are you felt angry, resistant, ashamed, distrustful and/or guilty. Even the compliments probably made you suspicious, didn’t they? Feelings like that aren’t good building blocks for mutual respect and cooperation. You-Statements create defensiveness and emotional resistance. In extreme cases our partner feels so emotionally unsafe that he or she just shuts down like a nuclear power plant during a meltdown. At that point our partner won’t hear another word we’re saying. No progress is possible until the emotional meltdown has been contained, the nuclear emergency is over, and our partner once again feels safe.
Our emotional response to I-Statements is radically different. Here’s a list of I-Statements. Imagine that your partner is saying them to you. What emotional responses do you have this time?
- I feel happy.
- I don’t want to do that.
- I am feeling furious.
- I feel powerful.
- I feel insecure.
- I want you.
- I feel too afraid.
- I love you.
Chances are you felt more connected to your partner and more empathy for them. Even if you didn’t want to hear what your partner had to say, it was probably much less threatening than it would have been in its You-Statement version. For example, “I’m insecure” feels better than “You’re making me insecure,” and we get less defensive when we hear “I’m furious” than “You’re infuriating.” I-Statements connect people. Even in the most emotionally-charged situations, they help us stay more connected than we would otherwise.
Disguised You-Statements and Disguised I-Statements.
People also sometimes use Disguised You-Statements and Disguised I-Statements. A You-Statement can be disguised by prefacing it with “I think that…” or “I feel that….” For example, “I feel like you have never cared about me and never will,” is just a You-Statement masquerading as an I-Statement. And unfortunately even though it’s disguised it still feels like a You-Statement, and evokes the same anger, resentment and resistance in our partner.
Disguised I-Statements occur when we use a generic “you” when we are in fact talking about ourselves. For example, “You can’t find an honest employee these days,” and “When you’ve worked for this company for this long, you just lose your energy,” are both Disguised I-Statements because they are really describing our own experiences.
Right now you may be thinking, “But everybody knows I’m talking about myself when I use Disguised I-Statements, so what difference does it really make?” Well, try switching the next time you catch yourself using Disguised I-Statements, and see how much more vulnerable the real I-Statement feels. Real, undisguised I-Statements contain actual truths about us without camouflage, and so they feel more vulnerable to say and lead to real emotional intimacy far faster than Disguised I-Statements do. Real I-Statements allow our partner to understand usÑthe real, unadulterated usÑat a deeper level, and that’s what genuine intimacy is built on.
What I-Statements Do
Because I-Statements require some healthy self-disclosure and self-disclosure requires vulnerability, they de-fuse rather than fuel arguments. It’s very difficult to carry on an argument when both people are using I-Statements; it’s very difficult to stop an argument when both people are using You-Statements.
Ironically, complimentary You-Statements like “You’re a great artist!” also elicits a defensive reaction, subtle though it may be. That’s because we intuitively know that accepting someone’s judgments about us is a two-edged sword. Anyone who can decide that we are a brilliant artist can also decide that we don’t have the sense God gave a lug nut. And since most of us don’t have much self-confidence anyway, we doubt our admirer’s credibility: “I’m convinced what I did wasn’t any good, so he must not know what he’s talking about.”
In contrast, when an admirer uses I-Statements they are talking about themselves instead of judging us. With an I-Statement like “Wow, I love the way this small dark area offsets the larger bright areas in the painting!” there is no two-edged sword because we aren’t being judged. And since our admirer is talking about his or her own reactions rather than directly about us, their credibility doesn’t suffer. That’s why most You-Statement compliments are dodged by the listener, and most I-Statement compliments aren’t.
It’s also very difficult to blame others when we’re using I-Statements. They force us to take responsibility for what we’re thinking and feeling, which protects others from our blame, guilt and judgment.
How To Use I-Statements
To create an I-Statement, all we need to do is start a sentence with an “I.” As simple as that may sound, there is an art to creating really effective I-Statements. Here are some suggestions:
- Be specific. “When women clam up, I feel angry,” triggers more resistance than “When you don’t speak to me during dinner, I feel angry.” The first statement is just begging for an emotional reaction because we’re lumping our partner into the generic category of Women, rather than treating her as the individual she is. In contrast, the second statement is event-specific and direct, and our partner knows that she’s being seen as she is.
- Avoid “oughts” and “shoulds.” Criticisms like “You should be on time!” usually hide our own feelings about a situation beneath a veil of self-righteousness. Try saying something like, “I feel angry/insecure whenÉ” This allows us to live in the moment with our feelings. Remember: be present!
- Avoid labels. Labels like “bitch,” “crazy,” “rigid,” “communist,” etc., tend to categorize people and blame them. Expressing our feelings directly works better than categorizing ourselves or others.
- Avoid the phrases “I feel likeÉ” and “I feel thatÉ.” The sentence “I feel that you are crazy,” is a Disguised You-Statement, not an I-Statement. When we disguise our true meaning, we’re still hedging and not letting our partner know who we are.
- Include our feelings, not merely our thoughts. If we want to be close to someone emotionally, we need to give them a clear picture of who we are. Don’t camouflage!
When To Use I-Statements
We can use I-Statements almost all the time–whenever we want to connect with others, build intimacy, or let them get to know us better. They are the bricks and mortar that build solid relationships. Even though it’s difficult to break our culturally-reinforced habit of using You-Statements, whatever work we put into learning to use I-Statements will be richly rewarded.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not recommending that we never use You-Statements. An occasional You-Statement is no problem if our partner agrees with our comment completely (“You’re 32 years old.”) And You-Statements can be very healing when our partner wants our feedback and we’ve already built a solid level of trust between us. I’m just suggesting that when we’re trying to build close, intimate relationships, that we’ll be far more successful by reversing our normal tendency to use around 95% You-Statements, and use 95% I-Statements instead.
Try them out
Try using only I-Statements for a full 15 minutes during a discussion on one of the following subjects: religion, politics, love, sex or money. Have another friend listen to you and remind you when you switch over into You-Statements. Afterwards, ask yourself: How did I feel using I-Statements? Was it harder for me to use I-Statements when I was experiencing certain feelings? If so, which ones? How do I feel now about myself (compared to before the exercise)? How do I feel about my discussion partner?