I Statements For Dummies

I statementsYeah, yeah, yeah. We all know we should try to use “I statements” when we are speaking with someone about a difficult topic. I statements provide clarity regarding our thinking and feeling about an event, and keep us calm and respectful by moving us away from our tendency to blame each other.

But if you’ve ever actually tried to use this strategy in the middle of a heated discussion, you know it can be a little tricky. Read on for some help in implementing this important, but often misunderstood, strategy.

I Statement Imposters Unmasked
Contrary to public opinion, simply putting the words “I feel” or “I think” in front of a sentence does not an I statement make. The “I feel” statement can be particularly difficult to craft well, and the result is that many imposters abound. Here’s how to spot the little rascals . . .

“I feel you need to spend more time at home.“ This is not really an expression of your feeling, but another way of giving your partner a sort of duty or command, as in, “You should spend more time at home.”

“I feel you are being selfish.” This is a rather clever way to label and/or criticize your partner without actually appearing to do this. AKA, “You are selfish.”

“I feel I am right about this.” Sneaky.  But, no. “I am right about this” is not a feeling; it’s an assertion of the superiority of your viewpoint. What you are really saying here is, “You are wrong.”

The above communications, while purporting to be I statements, are really just other ways of saying, “You should” or “You are.” They are actually, then, “you statements,” which are a big no-no in difficult or heated conversations because they have a tendency to make everyone defensive and upset.

Will the Real I Statement Please Stand Up?
Simply put, a true feeling I statement should express your authentic feeling in a non-blaming way. Consider your emotional state of mind, find the right word to describe it, and then speak that description out loud.

As in, “I feel sad right now.” Easy, right?

You can even say, “I feel sad when you spend so much time at the office,” but notice the use of the word “when” as opposed to “because.” “Because” implies causation and, thus, blame. And when people feel blamed, they tend to stop listening to you.

I feel . . . ???
It’s okay to be uncertain about exactly what you are feeling. Feelings can be complicated. They can come in layers, or can change over time, even as you are speaking. But the complicated nature of feelings shouldn’t prevent you from using an I statement, because an I statement can express where you stand on things at any particular moment.

Just change the statement above to something like, “I think what I’m feeling is sadness,” or “Part of what I’m feeling is sadness,” or “What I’m feeling right now is sadness,” and there you go!

The True Power of the I Statement
Yes, using I statements will help us be calmer and more authentic communicators. But the true power of the feeling I statement is ultimately about how it reframes the situation in which we find ourselves in a way that reveals the choices we have.

Stay with me here.

Think about it this way. If we blame someone else for of our state of mind, if it is someone else’s fault that we feel the way we do, what hope do we have of changing or controlling, or choosing how to express these feelings? None. Nada. Zilch.

But if we acknowledge ownership of our feelings, we also acknowledge that we have the power to change and manage them. And acknowledging this power is the first step to actually feeling better.

So we can choose whether or not to feel angry when our teenager leaves her clothes on the floor. We can choose how to express our frustration at our mother for telling us how we should live our lives. And we can decide just how we want to handle feelings of sadness or loneliness that arise when our partner spends so much time at the office.

In short, I statements can help us communicate more effectively, not only with others, but also with ourselves.  And that is their real power.

So go on. Try it. How do you feel?

A slightly different version of this post appears here on the relationship website Your Tango.

Now it’s you’re turn. How have you rocked an I statement recently? Did it help you clarify your position, either to others or yourself? Tell us your story in a comment below.

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also enjoy Using An Upside-Down Map or There Is A First Time For Everything.

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6 Responses to I Statements For Dummies

  1. Kendra McCallie says:

    I feel excited when you write insightful blog posts about complex interpersonal issues as it allows me to clarify my own thoughts about presenting these ideas to my own clients. How was that?

    Seriously, this really is well stated. The concept of ‘I’ statements is a tricky one to teach in session and it would be lovely to have this as a hand-out to send home after a session. The hand out I have used is too simplistic and is missing that important piece of helping to understand the Imposter ‘I’ statement. I wonder how many of us slide into that realm all the while believing we are using ‘I’ statements? Well done, Annie. I plan to hand this out to clients (credit to you, of course).

    • Anne Barker says:

      That was a good one, Kendra! 🙂

      And I’m glad the post was helpful to you. I, too, have struggled with how to communicate this strategy to clients, and actually ended up writing the post as a way to clarify the concept in my own mind. Of course you should give it out to whomever you think it might help. I might even make a printer-friendly version of it and offer a link here, so check back!

      Thanks for your feedback, friend.

  2. Charlie B says:

    Just stumbled on your site. Am working in leadership development for a restaurant company out of Texas called Jason’s Deli. I offer an intro to Emotional Intelligence, and teach 5 kinds of I-statements: observation, preference, confrontation, affirmation and self-definition. The context is a deli manager carrying out his/her responsibilities and at times, needing to be appropriately assertive, not to manipulate but to be clear.
    But I have this gnawing sense that I-statements – even accurate ones, can be misused or over-used. Do you have thoughts about the limitations of (over) using I statements? Thanks much, and happy Thanksgiving!
    The Woodlands, TX

    • Anne Barker says:

      Thanks for checking in, Charlie, and for your thoughtful question. No, I can’t say that I’ve really considered the possibility that I Statements can be overused, although I wouldn’t be surprised if that is sometimes true. I have noticed that they tend to be used incorrectly, as I noted in my blog and tried to address.

      Generally speaking, I think any communication strategy or technique is most helpful when it is used as a tool in the service of clearer, calmer communication, not as a hard and fast rule in and of itself. Maybe the latter situation is the danger you’re so thoughtfully considering here.

      Glad the post got you thinking, and that you opened up a dialogue. Perhaps other readers would care to weigh in on the question?

      Thanks again for stopping by, and don’t hesitate to check in again. You might find other posts that are useful to you in your very important work.

      Best to you and yours,

      • Charlie B says:

        Makes sense. Kinda what I’m after. Its still a strong “guy” culture, and they tend to see it as a tool in the technical sense, rather than interpersonal “savvy.” Risks becoming manipulative if they are constantly citing their feeling state every time they respond to someone.

        Your response helped clarify for me that I need to continue to emphasize their emotional self-awareness as a cue for remaining at 110 when they encounter 220, as this will tend to give them those few seconds to ask themselves: what does this person need from me, and how can I respond? I deeply appreciate your kind, swift post. Blessings on your life and work!

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