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Couples

The Communication Technique Everyone Needs to Use – “I” – statements

By March 29, 2023No Comments

To have good relationships, we need to be assertive and honest in sharing our thoughts, feelings and concerns. However, this needs to be done in a way that is respectful and encourages both parties to listen to each other. Although it is not entirely within our control whether we will be heard or understood, how we initiate communication will have an impact on how the ‘message’ is received and the response.  It is important to learn how to express our needs effectively and to make sure that our choice of words will not make conflicts worse. A good way to do this is through the use of “I” statements: a seemingly simple technique, but one that can radically change the way communication and conflicts are approached.

In a nutshell, in “I” messages, statements are made about ourselves, how we feel and our concerns, and what actions of the other party have led to the concerns.  “You” messages focus on the other person.  

Here are some examples of “You” statements: 

  • A spouse is frustrated by the lack of quality time with their significant other due to their work commitments: “You always work on weekends! You don’t care about your family”. 
  • A husband or wife is waiting for the return of their spouse and greets them with: “You are always coming home late! Why can’t you come back earlier?”  
  • A wife shares her frustration with the lack of division of household chores: “You never do the laundry, swipe the floor, or do your dishes. You are so lazy.” 
  • A spouse has started to feel more distant: “You never tell me how you feel anymore. If you loved me enough, you would share more with me.” 

“You” statements are critical and lead to the recipient feeling blamed, attacked, forced to change or punished. As a result, they would usually become defensive. If we take the first example, a response might be: “I work on weekends because it helps us save money. Isn’t that something you want? I do it for all of us, so how can you say that I don’t care about my family? Do you think I enjoy not having a break?”  

It is human instinct to defend ourselves when we feel attacked, critiqued, or blamed. Even if there is a valid point the speaker (i.e. the person who is initiating the discussion) is making, “You” statements induce emotions like shame, guilt, and anger in the recipient. A productive discussion cannot take place, because the latter would not want to listen or talk about change anymore.  Not only is the communication not an amicable one, it is ineffective.

“You” statements focus on the person, not the issue. As a result, the primary issues are pushed aside. Finally, “You” statements are subjective. They are a reflection of our own experiences rather than the reality of the relationship or the other person. 

“You” statements are common for couples who are stuck in repeated conflicts and a vicious cycle of perpetual blame, without being able to address the underlying issues or get to a resolution.

In contrast, here is how some “I” messages would look like: 

  • “I feel rather lonely while waiting for you to come home.  I’m concerned that you are often home late and I get rather frustrated wondering when you’re going to be home.”
  • “I get very anxious when you raise your voice at me because it makes me feel like I’ve done something very wrong.  Could you please not raise your voice when we talk?”
  • “When you take so long talking to your friend on the phone, I’m concerned that there might be urgent calls that cannot come through.  Also, I feel frustrated as I would like to spend more time with you.  How about asking your friend to call at another time, when I am not around?” 

To summarize, there are a few parts to an “I” message:

I feel _________________ (express your feeling)

when you _____________ (describe the action that affects you or relates to the feeling)

because _______________ (explain how the action affects you or relates to the feeling)

What I need is __________________ (describe your preference for what you would like to take place instead)

The order in which the 3 first parts are expressed is usually not important, and the forth part is optional. 

In the statements above, the speakers share their own feelings and concerns. “I” messages are effective because the focus is on the issue not on the other person.  The clear communication is a good starting point for both parties to work out together what can be done about it. While “You” statements are often paired with a demand on the partner for changing their behavior, “I” statements offer the opportunity for the recipient to understand and empathize with the effect of their current behavior, and to offer their own solutions. 

There sharing of the speaker’s feelings can also lead to more trust in the relationship. It shows the speaker is willing to look within himself or herself and take responsibility for his or her feelings. It helps them feel empowered, rather than a victim of the situation and their own negative feelings about it. 

The use of “I” messages might not come naturally to most people initially.  A common mistake couples might make is to use “You” statements or criticism disguised as “I” statements: 

  • “I feel like you don’t care about me.” 
  • “I feel like it is convenient for you that I do everything at home.” 
  • “I am concerned that you have no desire to change in the long run.”

It often happens with people who find it hard to get in touch with their emotions and needs.

It shows an example of how “I” statements can be misused, if treated simply as a superficial communication formula, without understanding how it benefits the speaker and the recipient to grow emotionally as individuals and as a couple.

For the speaker, it leads to increased abilities to self-reflect, self-soothe, and take accountability. Just by taking time to formulate what is going on for them, they get to have a clear sense of who they are, what they feel, and what they want. As they are more capable to connect to themselves in this way, this will improve the emotional dynamic on a deeper level.

For the receiver, listening to their partner calmly leads to increased capacity to manage their reactivity, to empathize, and respond with compassion and understanding.

The “I” statement technique opens the door to new levels of intimacy, vulnerability, and emotional connection. “I” statements might not work alone if there are deeper communication problems or conflicts; however, they are a good place to start a productive discussion and prevent escalation. 

If you practice, you will be surprised at how you will begin to like this communication approach, especially when you begin to experience the good result of better quality interactions and more harmonious relationships.

Bibliography: 

Rogers, S. L., Howieson, J., & Neame, C. (2018, May 18). I understand you feel that way, but I feel this way: the benefits of I-language and communicating perspective during conflict. PeerJ, 6, e4831. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4831