During a recent wonderfully intense family visit, I gave some unsolicited advice regarding the care and tending of my precious grandchildren! My daughter, who has been taught by the expert, was quick to bring this error to my attention, using perfect “I” statements. Alas, I took offense, defended myself, and was just a little bit hurt. We were able to talk through the situation, and I managed to remember that an “I” statement is meant merely to express one’s feelings and try to come up with a workable solution to a problem area.
I make this admission to acknowledge that even years of training cannot always ensure perfect conformance to healthy behaviors. My hope for myself, and for you, is that practice, practice, practice, and the strong desire for better relationships will win out. Each time we are aware of the fact that our reactions are just that – reactions – we are a step closer to finding out healthier ways of relating to those we love. One exceptional tool for managing our emotions and presenting them in a way that can help encourage open and non-defensive dialogue is the use of “I” statements.
Taking the blame out of conflict
Before learning about “I” statements, I would often feel hopeless and discouraged. I would get that gnawing anxiety in my gut and try even harder to make things work. I did not realize that trying to change the behavior of another person is not within my control. “I” statements taught me to analyze what it was I was feeling, what I wanted and needed and helped me find a way to communicate those feelings, wants and needs to another.
What is an “I” statement? It is a way of communicating to someone that is assertive. It allows one to bring up and discusses a problem without accusing or blaming the other person as the cause of the problem. Think about your last conflict with a family member or co-worker. How often do those discussions begin with the word “you”? And how often do they deteriorate into a conflict that often grows beyond the disagreement at hand? No one likes to be accused and no one responds well to a discussion that begins with criticism or blaming comments. Let’s use an example to see how to use “I” statements effectively. In this scenario, you are upset with a friend or family member who calls you 5 or 6 times throughout the day, and you would like to find a way to limit the calls without losing the relationship.
The “I” statement format
Here’s the basic format of an “I” statement-driven conversation.
When you ______________
I feel ____________________
Because I _______________
Would you consider _______________________?
(Or/so _______________________ )
The format is designed to help you state your position to another individual that is healthy and does not attack them and put them on the defensive. It is a fantastic tool for helping to set boundaries when you feel anxious or upset with someone else.
“When you” must be followed by a non-blaming statement of fact. This is perhaps the hardest part of the exercise. The normal reaction when angry or upset is to attack the other individual. If you can find a way to state the subjective behavior, it is less likely the person to whom you are talking will be angry and return the attack. To test yourself, ask how an outside observer or someone with a video camera would record the event. Example: “When you call me 5 or 6 times during the day…” Blaming statements: “When you check up on me…” or “When you don’t trust me…”
“I feel” must be followed by a true statement of your feelings. If you use the word “like” or “that” to follow “I feel,” you are not stating a feeling, but once again starting the attack. If you say “I feel that” or “I feel like,” the very next word is usually “YOU” and is not a feeling. If the feeling expressed is anger, consider finding what is underneath the anger, and express that. (Anger usually covers hurt, sadness, frustration, etc.) Example: “I feel annoyed,” or “I feel overwhelmed,” not “I feel like YOU don’t trust me.”
“Because I” is an attempt to further clarify what is the issue for you. It is important here, also, to stay away from blaming the other. The point of this exercise is to state your own position, in a non-blaming way, and offer suggestions. Example: “Because I want to be able to get my work done,” or “Because I don’t like talking on the phone.” (Not “Because I want you to quit pestering me.”)
“Would you consider” is an attempt to offer reasonable ideas to try to resolve the problem. Example: “Would you consider limiting your calls to two per day?” or “Would you consider letting me call you once in a while?” or whatever might be a reasonable idea for the situation.
Now is the hard part. Sometimes the person with whom you are communicating will not consider alternatives and will not be rational and discuss the problem. Sometimes, it becomes necessary, for your own mental health, to set a boundary in spite of the other person’s refusal to cooperate. In that case, you might need to use the “so” option. Example: “So, I am only going to answer my phone from 6:00 to 7:00 each day,” or “So, I will need to screen my calls and talk to you twice a day.”
Using this type of statement does not guarantee that the other person will agree or cooperate. Sometimes it is necessary to make the statement solely for yourself. If you manage to do so without breaking any of the rules, you should not have to feel responsible for the behavior of the other person.
Putting it into practice
It is very useful to write out this exercise several times before using it in a real-life situation, especially where emotions are high. Practice in situations that aren’t emotional first, or with cooperative people. Discuss it with your partner, friend, or parent to see if they will cooperate.
Here’s how it would look, using the above example:
“When you call me 5 or 6 times each day, I feel annoyed, because I don’t like talking on the phone. Would you consider limiting your calls to one or two times a day?” Or “When you call me 5 or 6 times each day, I feel annoyed, because I don’t like talking on the phone. I’ve asked you several times to limit your calls and that doesn’t seem to be working, so I am going to start screening my calls and answering one or two per day. I’m sorry that I have to do this, but I need to take care of myself. Maybe later we can go back to a different alternative.”
Learning to use “I” statements effectively has the power to change your life and relationships. You will, on occasion, however, need to stand your ground firmly when the person to whom you are speaking refuses to listen or takes offense. It does take practice! It was my daughter’s persistence in using “I” statement, rather than letting my reaction rule her behavior, that allowed us to continue our discussion and find a solution that worked for both of us.