“You always ignore me in front of your friends! You act like I don’t even exist,” Karis yells at her boyfriend Ron. “Well you get clingy and try to get under my skin when I’m with them. You bring it upon yourself,” he fires back. They both leave the room in rage—they thought they were angry before, but now they’re really upset with each other.
Have you ever found yourself in a similar predicament? You and your significant other are in a disagreement and then the whole fiasco worsens after you attempt to express your feelings… which really come out as accusations and insults. It’s okay to admit that you’ve been there. We’re all only human and it’s easy to let our emotions get the best of us. There is, however, an effective method to avoiding like-scenarios and communicating more effectively: utilizing “I” statements.
What Are “I” Statements?
An “I” statement is a communication strategy that focuses on an individual’s feelings, actions, and beliefs, rather than those of the person receiving their message. This is less accusatory, and it allows for the actual issue at hand to be addressed. Look, for example, at how the above scenario unfolds when “I” statements are utilized instead of “you” statements:
“I feel insignificant when we’re around your friends, and I’m hurt by it,” Karis says to her boyfriend Ron. “Well, I don’t mean to hurt you. Sometimes I just want to hang with my buddies.” Karis realizes that she has been a little clingy, and they both agree that Ron should spend more time with just his friends. And Karis should do the same.
Using “I” statements assisted Karis and Ron in expressing their feelings and understanding the true issue at hand. They were quickly able to reach a solution and a full-blown argument was completely avoided.
Using “I” Statements in Therapy
In teaching their patients to communicate more effectively, therapists often encourage them to use “I” statements. This is especially common in marital and couples counseling alike, as couples (like Karis and Ron) often repeat a harmful cycle of blaming each other, instead of understanding each other and getting to the root of the problem. Using “I” statements helps couples work through their differences in an effective manner and prevents further harm from being done to the relationship.
“I” statements also prove effective in family counseling, as they bring the focus onto individual family member’s feelings related to another’s actions, rather than on the action itself. They allow all members to express how they feel and better understand how one another’s actions negatively affect the others. For example, a family may seek counseling after a parent has admitted to being an alcoholic. Family members can utilize “I” statements to explain hurt or disappointment that they’re feeling.
The Trouble With “I” Statements
“I” statements are an incredibly useful communication tool, but that doesn’t mean they’re so easy to implement. One may intend to use “I” statements effectively, but come up short, for example. That being said, it can take some practice before one proves to use them successfully. Consider this: Your friend is always taking your things—your clothes, your shoes, your food—without asking. You’ve confronted them about this problem before, but they just keep doing it. Tonight, the two of you and a coworker are going out to a nice dinner; and the second you see your friend, you notice that they’re wearing your favorite shirt. “You have no respect for me or my things!” you belt out. Then you remember your communication strategies and rephrase. “I feel like you don’t have any regard for me or my belongings.”
Your frustration got to you and you forgot to utilize “I” strategies, but you tried to turn it around by rephrasing. Still, the second statement straddled the line of effective communication—it still came across accusatory. A more effective “I” statement would have been, “It upsets me when you take my things without asking. I think we’ve misunderstood some boundaries and I’d like to revisit them.” Most importantly, though, you tried. And practice will yield a more promising execution and results in the future.
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