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The Truth About “I Statements”

You-statements are to be avoided in conflict, but I-statements can also backfire.

Key points

  • I-statements don’t guarantee success in a conflict and may still elicit a defensive response.
  • As important as the language you use during a conflict is taking the time to figure out what you feel and why.
  • True I-statements avoid blame and finger-pointing, and are admissions that you get triggered by certain situations, no matter who triggers it.
Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

My partner and I recently attended an online class on navigating conflict in relationships, and inevitably we were brought around to addressing the popular formula of making I-statements rather than you-statements—one of the tentpoles of conflict management—which argues for not pointing the finger at the other guy, but taking responsibility for your own part in creating conflict.

Anyone who’s ever been in conflict with someone knows that hearing a you-statement is hearing yourself be blamed for something, identified as the problem. “You never listen to me,” “You’re always late,” “Why are you so stubborn?” And even if you don’t know consciously that you're being blamed, your reflexive reaction of defensiveness tells you that you know it when you hear it.

But quitting the blame game, shifting from you-statements to I-statements, is tricky business, not just because blaming is probably a longstanding personal habit, but because it’s a human habit—a subset of scanning the environment for danger and threat, looking for someone to blame for our troubles. And it’s human nature to defend ourselves when we feel attacked.

Still, you give it a shot. Instead of telling someone “You’re being selfish” (or stubborn, mean, uncooperative, insensitive, you name it), you say “I feel frustration when you change our plans without consulting me.” And maybe you feel a small surge of accomplishment at coming up with an I-statement—taking the edge off an accusation, avoiding blame and shame, and working to head defensiveness off at the pass. But your partner still bristles, and suddenly you realize you still made a you-statement. “I feel frustration when you…”

I-statements typically begin with “I feel,” but they’re undermined if you follow it up with the word “you.” “I feel you’re being selfish” is just adding “I feel” onto an accusation. It’s a you-statement in disguise, but not a thick enough one to avoid detection.

So you give it another try: “I feel frustrated when y... I mean when I feel disrespected, which I feel when plans are changed without telling me.” This feels clean—no you-statements—but your partner’s feathers continue to ruffle. Probably because you’re still insinuating that they’re the problem—they disrespected you. Best to avoid words that smack of insinuation—anything that ends in an “ed.” Disrespected, ignored, abandoned, cheated, mistreated, etc. Because the implication is that it’s the other guy who’s doing these things to you.

So you go back to the drawing board, knowing that as important as the language you use is taking the time to figure out what you feel and why: “I feel frustration when I feel out of control of my own schedule, and one way this happens is when plans are changed without my knowledge. I’d like to request that we dialogue before changes are made to our plans.”

Much better, and there’s a specific request for change, but you may have to struggle a bit to get to such clarity, because this way of languaging feelings doesn’t come naturally to most of us and is likely to feel and sound awkward. But a little awkwardness is a small price to pay for peace and goodwill. And it may be the difference between getting a defensive response and getting a cooperative response. And the difference between a five-minute conflict and an hourlong conflict. Besides, the norm of reciprocity encourages people to match a gesture of conciliation with a similar one.

But it isn’t a guarantee of success, and I-statements may still elicit a defensive response, because the defendant may sense that you’re trying to disguise a you-statement, and they know exactly who the “you” is that you’re trying to soft-peddle. Plus, an I-statement is still an attempt to change someone’s behavior—it’s just using honey instead of vinegar—and people naturally resist attempts to change them, even by gentle request. So it’s best to build these possible outcomes into your expectations, so you don’t get sucked into a defensive reaction if it happens.

And if you’re dealing with someone who’s angry or vengeful, I-statements can also backfire, because telling such a person that you feel hurt when you hear mean remarks may just confirm for them that the tactic works—and you’ve just reinforced the power they have to hurt you.

But putting in the time and effort to “own” your feelings and not defaulting to an accusation is the difference between blaming someone for your frustration and admitting that you get triggered by certain situations, no matter who triggers it; that this is a pattern in your own life, a challenge you’ve come up against before, and possibly since childhood, and that it’s not the other guy’s fault. Which is an approach that’s likely to take the steam out of a conflict, and less likely to provoke a defensive response.

And in struggling toward a bonafide I-statement, stumbling over the fits and starts of reeling in your righteousness and indignation and really accounting for your own reaction, you communicate to your partner that you’re at least trying to work things out amicably rather than going for the knockout punch, as tempting as that is when you're fired up. And your collective feathers are more likely to remain unruffled.

At some point, you may even find yourself able to shortcut the whole I/you dilemma around certain recurring conflicts, and cut straight to understanding and reconnection without all the linguistic machinations.

Example: For a while there, my partner and I were routinely running aground on my habit of what she called “micromanaging” her—“Did you bring your sunglasses,” “Don’t forget your phone charger,” “Did you remember to call your sister?” Which I thought of as being helpful, but she thought of as trespassing, and which made her feel “parented,” if not incapable.

After numerous rounds of confronting me about it, making I-statements which somehow didn’t quite sink in and lead to actual behavior change on my part, she asked in exasperation how else she could say it, and in a moment of illumination I said, “How about you just say ‘Code 5,’ and I’ll understand that I’m doing that thing again.” And lo and behold, it worked, and has continued to work.

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