Taking Responsibility for How You Share Your Feelings

Reduce defensiveness and gain insights about your own feelings.

Posted Feb 13, 2019

“Sadly” responded to my first post with the comment:

“Sadly only works if both sides start at the same position—that there is a problem on each side and wanting to change things together. Doesn't work if for example, you are trying to change but they are fixed pointing all fingers at you and deciding you are the only thing that needs to change and that you have been the only one at fault. If you cannot start from a position where you step away from blame and refusal of any responsibility (at all) then there is no hope for any real lasting change, the only thing you can possibly do is try to protect yourself from future tantrums.”

This is sad.

It is true that the skills and approaches described in my book Loving Through Your Differences do start on the assumption that both people are willing to look at themselves and make changes where needed or possible. Some of the skills are useful if just one individual begins to use them. The skill described in this post is a leading example. But the best way to use my book is for a couple to work through each chapter together.

Communicating Feelings

There are behaviors that help resolve conflicts based on separate realities. As outlined in the last post, the starting principle is that you “Agree that each person has a right to her way of seeing and experiencing things (her emotional reality) while affirming and trusting your own.” This appears to be what was missing for “Sadly.”

But the second principle is to “Communicate your own reality without finding fault with other people’s.” This is a skill you can use whether the other person buys into the initial premise. If you follow this ground rule, you’ll find that your communications are less likely to cause defensiveness or resistance. As a result, other people will be more willing to share their emotional reality with you without having to blame or counterattack.

The essential element of this skill is to communicate your experience without judging the other person’s experience. Let’s take the silly little example I used in the first post: My wife and I go to a movie. I enjoyed the movie. She was bored to tears. If I start the conversation with “Wow, what a great movie,” she’s likely to come back with something like “You’ve got to be kidding. You liked that dumb movie? I don’t know when I’ve ever been so bored. Your taste in movies is downright adolescent.”

With a little skill, we can turn this into a genuine fight. (After all, my taste in movies is known to be exceptional.)

I started the disagreement by sharing a judgment—it was a “great” movie.

Watch what happens when instead I lead with a feeling: “Wow, I really enjoyed that movie.” My wife can respond with “I was bored to tears.”

Two people can have entirely different reactions to the same event. It’s true that I enjoyed the movie. It’s true she was bored. But two differing judgments contradict each other. By their nature they initiate conflict. It can’t be both a great movie and a boring movie. If you feel that you must kill off your partner’s reality in order to survive, you will inevitably get into conflict.

When we are in those conflicts rooted in different perception and different emotional realities, it is imperative that we communicate feelings, not judgments.

Feeling                      Judgment

I felt hurt when …     You were really nasty when …

         I’m angry ...               That was inconsiderate …

I’m upset …               Why are you being such a jerk?

Because feeling messages typically start with the pronoun “I,” they are sometimes referred to as “I messages.” You’ll also find that most judgments start with “you,” so are referred to as “You messages.”

The essence of sending an “I message” is that you take responsibility for your feeling. You are reporting what you feel, but not blaming the other person for causing it.

Connect Your Feeling to a Description of the Behavior or Circumstances

When you tell someone you are feeling hurt, angry, or upset you also need to let them know what the behaviors or circumstances were which resulted in your feelings. This is often the occasion to slip in another judgment: “I felt really hurt when you were so inconsiderate.” The only word the other person will hear is the word “inconsiderate.” Just because you start the sentence with “I feel”—“I feel you were really mean”—doesn’t make it a feeling, not a judgment. It’s just a judgment wrapped up in fancier clothes. You need to do your dead-level best to describe the behavior or circumstances without judging it.

For example, say, “I felt hurt when you said that thing about my Mother,” instead of, “I felt hurt when you were so rude.”

Tell the Other Person What You Need

Sometimes it also helps if you tell the other person exactly what you need. John feels really perturbed when he comes home and finds the kids have scattered toys all over the house, making it messy. His “I message” might be, “I’m upset when the toys are left on the floor. I really need calm and order when I first get home from work.” John’s wife may respond with, “I feel overwhelmed today. The kids have been awful. I could really use your help.”

The concept of “I messages” has been around psychological circles for many years. I first learned it from Dr. Thomas Gordon in the 1960s. But I’ve observed that while many people know about the concept, they don’t always practice the skill. If you are going to look at the meanings underlying your feelings, you must first take responsibility for your feelings and communicate them in ways that do not blame your partner for them.