As the child of a marriage and family therapist, I think my first complete sentences came in the form of “I” statements, a conversation tactic often recommended by counselors to express your needs without attacking or blaming the other person. For example, “I feel frustrated when you leave your socks on the floor. I would feel calmer if you could place your socks in the hamper.”
“I” statements are certainly useful in situations from the bedroom to the boardroom (and I often use it in the classroom). They are infinitely better than the “You never…” and “You always…” which usually prompts the recipient to either arm him or herself or attempt to shield from the verbal barrage. They require that you first analyze the cause (action/behavior) and effect (your emotional response) before engaging someone in conversation. And they hint at the assertion that both people can work together to find a solution.
Yet even though “I” statements are useful, they have their limitations. They often require some interesting verbal gymnastics to form, they can act as a mere cover for blame and attack and, as I often witness, they can simply turn into an ineffectual argument frequently peppered with the word “I.”
“I” statements are good. And you can make them better. Here’s you to supercharge your “I” statements in three easy steps:
1) Express Your Gratitude: This needs to be sincere appreciation (as BS is worse than silence) and must relate to the situation at hand. On your side, this helps to calm the flames of aggravation and helps remind you of the bigger picture or underlying motivation behind the offensive behavior. For the other person, this will help him or her feel seen and appreciated, which goes a long way to lowering defensiveness and encouraging a willingness to change.
2) Express Your “I” Statement: Keep it simple: “I feel…when…” Clarify if needed. Stay calm; if you escalate your emotions, the other person’s will ramp up as well, lowering the chances of a successful conversation. Be careful not to start with a “But,” as it negates your gratitude statement.
3) Present a Challenge for the Team: Phrase this as a challenge that can be problem-solved together. It’s not one against one, it’s two against the problem at hand. Acknowledge any side issues or limitations that you are aware of, as this lets your partner know you are listening and invested in the process. Don’t go in with a “solution” that you try to sell; this is a problem to be solved together with input from both people. This also helps to limit defensiveness because it is not about what someone is doing wrong, it’s about finding a resolution together.
Here’s what this might look like in action:
1) “I really appreciate how hard you work for the family and the security it provides us.”
2) “I miss you when you’re not here; I really enjoy our time together as a family.”
3) “Do you think we could work together to figure out a way that we could have more family time that wouldn’t impact your work or need for time alone?”
As with any change, it will feel awkward and formulaic at first. But with practice, it becomes easier and more natural. If you need more ideas about how to approach difficult conversations, this post has several ideas for you.