Have you ever been in an argument with someone—a partner, a friend, a parent, a sibling, or a colleague—that seemed so intractable that no matter what you said, the conflict only festered? (I’d like to meet someone who hasn’t had one of these arguments, as they define most of my life between the ages of twelve and nineteen.) What you might not realize, especially in the heat of the moment, is that it may not be what you’re saying that keeps your dialogue unproductive, but how you’re saying it.
I-Statements vs. You-Statements
If you’ve ever lain on a therapist’s couch, you’ve probably heard about I-statements and you-statements. In conflict, most people are inclined to begin with what the other person has done wrong. We start a confrontation with a you-statement: you didn’t call, you are late on your project, you let me down.
According to psychologists and conflict-resolution experts, however, we’re going about this all wrong. The far more productive statement begins not with “you” but with “I,” and is often followed by that word that makes some people squirm: “feel.” In the above examples, I-statements might include: I feel unloved when you don’t call, I am worried you might be falling behind on this project, I feel let down.
Why I-Statements Are More Successful
The problem with even the most well-meaning you-statements is that the recipients may perceive them as accusing, criticizing, invalidating, or intrusive. Someone who feels he or she is being called out is likely to go on the defensive by denying, counterattacking, or withdrawing completely, all of which serve to escalate, rather than resolve, the conflict. The most destructive—and common—you-statements, says clinical psychologist Dr. Elaine Ducharme, are qualified by the words “never” and “always.” Seldom does someone always or never act in one way; spoken in anger or frustration, these statements may come across as irrational or extreme. “It just puts the walls right up,” says Ducharme.
With an I-statement, by focusing on your own reactions, rather than on the other person’s actions (or inactions), you hopefully avoid allowing the conflict to devolve into a blame game. In addition, by expressing your own inner thoughts and feelings, you display a vulnerability that builds trust and elicits responsiveness—a vulnerability that ultimately, once the conflict is resolved, is a strength.
When I-Statements Backfire
Now, if you’ve ever been in an argument with someone who’s lain on a therapist’s couch, you also know that I-statements are not foolproof. When you don’t practice them conscientiously, I-statements have an insidious way of boomeranging back to “you,” whereupon they cause double the resentment. Prefacing a statement with the words “I feel” does not make it an I-statement, only a you-statement in an I-statement’s clothing. “I feel that you’re being rude when you’re late for our appointments” does not focus on your reaction to your friend’s lateness, but still only on your friend’s lateness. An alternative, true I-statement might be “I feel unimportant when you’re late for our appointments.” When you-statements are disguised as I-statements, the other person feels not only judged or attacked by the “you” part of the assertion, but now manipulated by the “I” part as well.
I-statements can also backfire when you put too much responsibility for your sense of well-being on the other person. They should be about owning and expressing emotion, not about making the other party responsible for your mental world. There’s a greater chance of this happening, explains author and guidance counselor Dr. Jane Bluestein, in situations where there is a power differential between the two parties in conflict. If a mother tells her child, “I feel sad when you throw a tantrum,” the child may see not the specific problem, but the broader implication: responsibility for her mother’s happiness—a heavy burden for anyone, especially a child. Likewise, a boyfriend who tells his girlfriend, “I feel like hurting myself when you talk to other guys” is not expressing emotion but trying to manipulate the situation with fear, figuratively putting his life in the other person’s hands. The child and the girlfriend, far from reaching a better understanding of the effects of their actions, can experience only fear, frustration, and ultimately resentment.
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