Written by: Perrin Jones, MA, LCMHCA, NCC, MT-BC
Effective communication skills are crucial to cultivating healthy relationships with others. We can work to be mindful of how both our nonverbal communication skills like body language as well as verbal communication skills (tone, volume, words we choose) play a part in escalating and deescalating conversations. “I” statements are a cornerstone of healthy verbal communication that can prevent undue arguments and lead to more effective ways of working through challenges. Read on to learn more about “I” statements and how to put them into practice in your life.
What is an “I” Statement and Why Does it Work?
Using “I” statements is a communication strategy that is direct and assertive yet can decrease defensiveness in the other party. These statements generally follow a formula of “I feel __________ when ________.” “I” statements allow us to acknowledge our emotions (more about the benefit of this here), thus taking accountability and responsibility for our feelings about a situation without placing the blame on the other person. Think about the times someone has been accusatory in a conversation with you and how you felt. They were likely firing off “you” statements – “You always forget to take out the trash!” “You can’t be counted on to help me out!” When we hear a “you” statement, we feel like we’re being attacked, and we’re much more likely to fire back “you” statements at the other person and try to defend ourselves, escalating the conversation into a potential argument.
One way to get around this and have a productive conversation about what’s bothering you is implementing “I” statements. It may sound cheesy or cliché, but there’s a reason that therapists and communication experts so frequently suggest this strategy. Imagine how the conversation might go differently if you expressed, “I feel frustrated and overwhelmed when I remind you to take the trash out more than once.” This statement is putting the focus on you and your feelings instead of solely on the other person’s actions. It can also be helpful to follow up your “I statement” by asking for what you need instead of their current actions – “In the future, it would be helpful to me for you to follow through with the chores earlier on or let me know when you plan to complete them.”
“I” statements are often discussed in the context of romantic relationships, but these are just as effective when talking to friends and family members. In fact, we regularly encourage teenage and young adult clients to use this strategy when talking with their parents and vice versa.
Examples of “I” Statements
- For a teen, “I feel mistrusted when you go through my belongings without asking.”
- For a teen, “I feel resentful when you decide that I can’t go out with my friends on the weekend.”
- For a parent, “I feel worried and anxious when you don’t come home at the agreed upon curfew time.”
- For a parent, “I feel confused when I see dirty dishes in the sink because we had a conversation about chore expectations earlier in the week.”
- For a partner, “I felt angry and ignored when you decided to spend time with your friend when I feel like we haven’t had a lot of time together recently.”
No matter your age or stage in life, taking ownership of your own feelings resulting from others’ actions can help you process your experience more effectively and lead to improvement in communication in your relationships. Try out an “I” statement this week and see how you feel and how the other person reacts – it may just change your interactions for the better!