The power of “I” statements

I learned about “I” statements as a teenager. I couldn’t believe that such a simple tweak in my communication could be so effective in so many situations.

“I” statements almost always start with “I…”, such as “I feel…”, “I think…”, “I see…”, and “I wish…”.

What’s so great about “I” statements? Well, the way I like to think about it, is you can never be wrong if you use an “I” statement!  It’s logically safe, but also assertive and honest.

So instead of “You forgot to flush the toilet!” you would say, “I see the toilet hasn’t been flushed, and I really don’t like how that makes the bathroom smell. I wish you would remember to flush every time you use it.”

If you just say “You forgot to flush!”, it’s a very pointed phrase. The listener gets hit, in a way, by a condemning accusation. It immediately raises defenses. And you’re likely to hear an equally pointed rebuttal. “NUH-UH it was my sister!” or, “I didnt forget! I was about to!”. The conversation can quickly escalate.

But the other phrasing is not pointed towards the listener. It’s all about you. There’s nothing to argue with. The listeners is thinking: “You see it’s dirty? Ok… You don’t like that smell? Ok… You wish I would do something? Can’t argue with that.”

If you practice speaking like this, and see how effective it is, then you might find yourself using this technique more often than not. It softens your speech. Instead of saying “Beans are good for you” you could just add “I think beans are good for you.” or “I’ve read that beans are good for you”. Suddenly you’ve switched from a hard-line position that can be refuted to the opposite.

But this technique isn’t just about hedging and plausible deniability. We don’t like weasel-words. Instead, “I” statements are often the most honest thing you can say.  “I CAN’T STAND it when you hit your sister. I feel so angry!” is direct and honest. It tells the listener exactly how you’re feeling. Even if the feeling is irrational or entirely based on subjective experience, “I hate the sound of Barry Manilow!” is honest and direct. But “Barry Manilow sounds awful” is a very different kind of statement, and is devoid of emotional content.

When children hear “I CAN’T STAND it when you hit your sister. I feel so angry!” they are hearing an adult who is unashamed and honest about their emotions, but still in control of their behavior. Neither passively hiding their anger, nor aggressively unleashing it in an uncontrolled way. We should want our children to follow that example we are modeling. We want them to be honest about their feelings with us, without “dumping” them on us or being overly accusatory.

It’s a beautiful thing to hear a child say “I think my brother stole my candy and I’m sad and angry about it! I want your help figuring out if he did, and I wish we could come up with a way to make it stop.” There’s so much in those two statements a parent can work with, compared to  “He stole! He’s so mean! You should punish him!”

I’m posting some external links here (and under the Links > Solutions menu) to what experts have to say about “I” statements, and strongly recommend them. You’ll find more great reasons to use them, examples, and videos.

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/i-message

http://www.communicationandconflict.com/i-statements.html