Chapter 13: “I” statements
How many times have you initiated a simple conversation, only to have it somehow turn into an argument? This often happens when we feel like our partner has crossed our boundaries, and we feel attacked or accused. “I” statements — statements about oneself and one’s feelings — help avoid this problem.
Using “you” statements:
Gretchen: “You hurt me when you left without telling me where you were going.”
Zack: “Well, I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t made me angry.”
Using “I” statements:
Gretchen: “I felt hurt when you left without telling me where you were going.”
Zack: “I’m sorry you felt hurt; that wasn’t my intent. I was feeling angry and upset.”
When we use “you” statements, our partners often feel threatened and react with defensiveness. “You” statements feel like attacks. If instead we use “I” statements and talk about our feelings and reactions to a situation, we are much less likely to provoke a defensive reaction. It’s hard to argue against someone else’s feelings!
Kyeli’s Story: In My Perspective
When someone uses a “you” statement, I often feel like they’re talking at me. I feel attacked and immediately go on the defensive. It’s then difficult for any real communication to happen, and it’s hard for me to calm down enough to listen.
If, on the other hand, someone speaks to me with “I” statements, I can hear what they’re communicating without my emotions flaring. I feel drawn in; I find myself sympathetic and willing to listen and make things better!
My favorite phrase in these situations is “in my perspective.” It calls attention to the fact that we all have different communication styles, and reminds whomever I’m speaking with that what I say comes from my personal perspective. I often follow these statements up with something like, “I realize your perspective might be different, but this is how it was for me.”
So much more communication happens this way!
Some phrases that may be useful to replace with an “I” statement:
- “You hurt me…”
- “You made me…”
- “You are…”
- “What really happened was…”
Some useful phrases to help you rephrase things as “I” statements:
- “I feel…”
- “In my perspective, …”
- “For me, …”
- “I remember…”
The goal of “I” statements is to avoid provoking a defensive reaction. If you only talk about your own feelings, your own perceptions, your own actions, and your own reactions, there’s no room for argument. Your feelings are what they are, regardless of why you feel them or how your partner feels about them. Your perceptions are what they are, regardless of whether you perceived things accurately. You are the sole expert on yourself; if you say, “This is how I feel,” no one can reasonably disagree with you and so there’s no opportunity for a conflict to begin. Your partner may feel you are overreacting or being overly emotional, but you’ll find more common ground for reaching resolution if you communicate openly about what your feelings are rather than what anyone expects them to be.
Here are some ways not to use “I” statements.
A “you” statement posing as an “I” statement:
Gretchen: “I felt like you were being a real jerk when you walked out without telling me where you were going.”
Zack: “Oh yeah? Well, in my perspective, you can be a real bitch sometimes!”
Just inserting “I felt” or “in my perspective” into a sentence does not mean you’re using “I” statements. The point of “I” statements is the intent, not the syntax. If you speak about your point of view and your feelings without attempting to impose your viewpoint on the other person, then you’re really using “I” statements.
Here’s an example of a situation where an “I” statement is not the best response:
Sometimes the best response is a “you” statement.
Zack: (punches Gretchen in the face)
Gretchen: “I felt hurt and bruised when you punched me in the face.”
No! In this case, there is an actual attack instead of a perceived attack. Using an “I” statement like Gretchen’s would set your boundaries too far out; it would let the attacker off the hook by taking the responsibility away from him and onto you. A better response would be, “You hurt and bruised me badly when you punched me in the face and I’m not going to take that from you anymore.” When someone does something that directly hurts us, a “you” statement is most appropriate. Outright physical abuse certainly warrants a “you” statement, as does verbal abuse.
The best response to verbal abuse is also a “you” statement.
Gretchen: “You’re a filthy, lazy, pathetic, worthless ass and I wish you had never been born!”
Zack: “I felt hurt when you said all those mean things.”
No! Just like in the example with the physical attack, this “I” statement takes the responsibility from the attacker, where it belongs, and puts it onto you. A better response would be something fierce like “That’s verbal abuse. If you say anything like that again, I’m walking right out that door.”
“I” statements are another example of holding healthy boundaries. It’s good to take responsibility for your own feelings; in most cases (but not all), “I” statements are useful and appropriate. Using “I” statements authentically and in the right circumstances can defuse volatile situations, allowing both partners to communicate clearly without provoking defensiveness.