Communication is a key part of any relationship, but when talking about conflict or charged topics, it can be difficult to get one’s point across without starting an argument. However, there is a helpful tool that can be used to diffuse situations and keep conversations civil and productive—“I” statements.
Often employed in therapy settings, “I” statements help to place emphasis on the feelings of the person speaking without blaming or shaming the person they’re talking to. This helps to prevent defensiveness and bickering, allowing the parties to come together and hear each other’s side of the story.
What Are “I” Statements?
An “I” statement, also known as an “I feel” statement or “I” message, is a communication strategy that focuses on an individual’s feelings, actions, and beliefs, rather than the actions of the person receiving their message, through the use of clear, assertive first-person statements starting with “I” (rather than “you”). They are used to promote understanding and reduce negative expressions such as blame, accusations, criticism, or defensiveness when discussing issues in or about a relationship.
“I” statements are less accusatory, and by avoiding any blaming or defensiveness, they allow for the actual issue at hand to be addressed.
“I” statements are very beneficial, and though they aren’t necessarily the solution, they can make it easier to find solutions. For example, “I” statements help with the clarity of each person’s position and establish a basis of reality to work from, but they don’t actually solve the problem—they just help the discussion along as the parties involved come to their own solution.
What Is an “I” Statement Example?
In its most basic form, an “I” statement would be something like, “I feel [feeling word] when [problem behavior] occurs.” For example: “I feel lonely and sad when you don’t spend time with me.” This is a first-person way of talking about an issue between two or more people.
If one were to say it differently, focusing on the actions of the other person, it might sound something like, “You make me feel lonely and sad when you spend time with your other friends without me.” This statement, while it may not be incorrect, can make the person on its receiving end feel defensive and shamed, while the previous “I” statement focuses less on blaming the person’s actions and more on the feelings that arise when that action occurs.
However, it’s important to point out that “I” statements can quickly become passively accusatory when “you” is added to the statements on a technicality, such as “I feel like you can be disrespectful.” Just because a statement starts with “I” doesn’t mean that it’s an “I” statement—it needs to be primarily focused on the emotions of the person speaking and the actual action taking place, not an interpretation of the action.
How Do You Use "I" Statements? How to Use "I" Statements in Conflict Resolution
You can use “I” statements for self-expression and to promote effective communication in relationships by telling others how you feel about a situation, explaining how a situation affected you, taking responsibility for your behavior, explaining your perspective or rationale, setting clear boundaries, and voicing what you want.
“I” statements are a useful communication tool for conflict resolution within relationships, as they help to clarify the problem and allow the other person an opportunity to take responsibility for their behavior without placing direct blame.
Using “I” Statements in Therapy
To help them communicate more effectively, therapists often encourage their clients to use “I” statements. This is especially common in marriage and couples counseling alike, as couples can easily get into a harmful cycle of blaming each other instead of understanding each other and getting to the root of the problem. Using “I” statements, especially in therapy, helps couples work through their differences in an effective manner and prevents further harm from being done to the relationship.
“I” statements can also prove effective in family counseling, as they bring the focus to individual family members’ 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 other individuals in the group.
What Are the 3 Parts of an “I” Statement?
“I” statements have numerous parts or types, with some containing as many as four. A three-part “I” statement often acknowledges the speaker’s feelings, followed by an acknowledgment of what prompted the feeling, and ends with a notification of what the speaker would rather have occurred.
When put together, it might look like this: “I felt [feeling word] when [action that prompted feeling]. I’d like [action you would prefer].
As an example, let’s use this statement and turn it into a three-part “I” statement:
- “You don’t care about me.”
Instead, an “I” statement regarding this conclusion might look like:
- “I felt uncared for when I observed [situation that triggered that feeling]. While this is my responsibility, I’d like your help supporting me to feel your care by telling me my value in your life, especially when I tell you I feel unsure or insecure about how you feel about me.
What Are 3 Important Components to an “I” Statement?
The three components of an “I” statement include accountability, communication of internal status, and assertiveness.
An individual is accountable for their message, feelings, thoughts, needs, and anything else that follows the “I” in their statement. Accountability is an important component of an “I” statement because it reflects the individual’s ownership and acknowledgment of the extent of their actions, decisions, or feelings before requesting clarity or change from others.
When a person expresses “I feel” or “I think,” they are reflecting their internal emotional state. This is helpful because it communicates to the other person what is or was happening within them and how the consequences of one’s actions are affecting them.
Assertiveness is the overall style of “I” statements. By directly and respectfully expressing one’s feelings toward each other, a relationship is better able to support one another’s needs, wants, boundaries, and preferences.
How to Respond to “I Feel” Statements
Imagine you’re on the receiving end of a well-crafted “I feel” statement from a significant other, such as: “I feel upset when you don’t eat dinner with me because I put a lot of effort into cooking the foods you like and I would prefer for us to eat dinner together.”
There are a few ways to respond to this statement, and a few ways not to respond. Remember to take a deep breath before you speak to ensure that you are not reacting impulsively or defensively. Consider taking a gentle and sympathetic approach toward your partner and what they’re saying, as “I feel” statements are often vulnerable positions for an individual.
Think of your response in the context of problem-solving. Analyze the problem and think through your perspective on the situation, comparing it to theirs and seeing how the two sides can come together. It can help to follow these steps:
- Assess what the problem is (i.e. significant other wants to have dinner with you)
- Consider your options (eat earlier or ask them to reserve effort for meals for when they could be better received, with you making time to eat with them)
- List the pros and cons of each situation (pros: more time after the shared meal to do what you want; cons: not as hungry during earlier dinner time)
- Try out your solutions
- See if it worked; if they didn’t, think of new ways to accommodate—maybe eating breakfast together or eating dinner together on weekends
Remember that “I” statements aren’t the change itself, but the catalyst that leads to change, and in this instance, it helps lead to productive problem-solving opportunities. It’s important to compromise when you can, making sure to meet them in the middle rather than prioritizing one person’s feelings over the other’s. Opening yourself to their perspective is key to coming to a true solution.
Benefits of Using “I” Statements
Clear and assertive communication is fundamental to any meaningful relationship. When you begin to incorporate “I” statements in relationships, it helps improve clarity in communicating perspective.
By expressing needs and concerns in a way that is able to be received and understood — especially during times of conflict — a relationship is better able to withstand storms through mutual respect and open conversation.