Communication 101: Using "I" Statements In Conflicts
It can be a struggle to identify and express how you feel to a loved one during conflict. Especially if we feel as though we are "walking on eggshells" and trying to avoid more conflict. It is all too common to feel trapped between "I'll tell them what I think and deal with the lash back - at least I've said my piece" and "We can move on If I can just keep my opinions and feelings to myself". The problem with following through on this train of thought is that we often end up trading long-term improvement (which tends to involve frustration and pain at the beginning) for short-term relief (which tends to involve disconnection and further conflict later). Furthermore, take a moment to recall all the energy and time that we spend trying to predict and control how our loved one might respond... A lot!
Let's break down how to use an "I" statement
Communication that is heavy with "you" statements tends to place blame onto the other person which often fails to improve the situation - even if those you statements may be correct! Think about your own reactions to "you" statements: How do we feel when someone is blaming us? We often become defensive. Once we are becoming defensive, angry or closed, this is when communication usually breaks down.
We want to communicate how we feel about a situation so that it changes, but want to remain collaborative with our loved one. So we use "I" statements when we: need to confront others about their behaviour, feel others are not treating us right, feel defensive or angry, or when others are angry with us. Feel welcome to propose some other circumstances in the comments!
Step 1: Listening
Yep, the first step to an "I" statement is to listen. We want to practice "active listening" where we do not interrupt, we repeat what the other person has said in our own words, demonstrate that we are listening through cues or "minimal re-reinforcers" (e.g., uh-huh, mmm, etc.), have open body language, and, hold back on advice-giving or reaction.
Step 2: Use "I" and not "You" and state how you are affected
When we have listened, we want to respond using "I"s (e.g., When I...., I think that I...., I feel that I...., My concern is...., etc.) and state how we're affected or how we feel in that moment.
Formula: I feel [x] when... [x] can be: sad, frightened, upset, frustrated, powerless, lost, etc.
Do not use lines like: "l feel like you" or "l feel that you" - this is just hiding a "You" statement under the guise of an "I" statement. It sounds simple, but many people struggle at this. It is always a good idea to rehearse this skill before using in a high-stress situation - just like any new skill. Also, try not to refer to the past or the future in how you feel (e.g., I've felt scared last time and again now), focus on only the immediate issue.
Step 3: Reference the behaviour and not the person It may sound odd but this is extremely important. It may be your partner is angry and who shouts at you, but it is the behaviour of shouting that is the problem. If they always shout in arguments, then it is a repeated behaviour that is a problem. The anger is an emotion - just like any other - and isn't the problem, it is the behaviour (e.g., the shouting, the pushing, the becoming silent, the walking away, etc.) Formula: I feel [x] when [y] occurs... [y] can be: When I'm shouted at, When I'm sworn at, When I'm pushed around, When the towels are left on the floor, When I think I'm not being heard, When the toys are left on the floor, etc.
Step 4: State what you want to happen in the future
If we only state how we feel and the behaviour, there is still a lot left open to misinterpretation. We want to be clear about how we want future interactions to be different.
Formula: I feel [x] when [y] occurs, I would like [z]
[z] can be tough to think about, but it is really important. We are taking responsibility for the management of our emotional experience and providing a framework to change future interactions. Examples are varied depending on the circumstances, but some examples might be: "I would like for us to be able to take a 10-minute break when this happens", "I need space for 5 minutes each time", "It would be nice if we could only discuss this issue in person", etc.
Practise, practise, practise! Ask for help and feedback.
It is normal for beginners to struggle with many of these steps. This is a very different way of expressing ourselves! It is especially difficult when we are in stressful, emotionally charged arguments. We need time and practice to improve our communication skills. It is a good idea to think about this skill as if you were wanting to learn a new language, instrument, or sport. We need to devote time to practise and review. Don't expect yourself to apply it straight away or for it to improve difficult relationships in a short time. Plan accordingly and ask for help if you struggle.
Rather than sticking to our guns or backing off, let's change how we deliver information.
When we think about conflict resolution, an important component of healthy resolution seeking is to take your own side. Sounds odd, doesn't it? How does taking my own side help with conflict? Well, let's explore what we mean by this a bit further:
Taking your own side means that you've identified your own emotional and cognitive reaction to an issue, learnt to process and accept your own experience, and, consciously decided the values you want to demonstrate in the face of this issue. Taking your own side means that we are not reacting on auto-pilot, but rather actively responding to our natural fight, flight or freeze responses in a manner that is consistent with who we want to be. Once we've learnt to manage the "low road" of our neurological flight/fight response and returned to the "high road" of conscious and values-based action, we are able to take our own side.
An "I" statement allows us to say how it is on our side, how you see it. Of course, no single skill or strategy is a magic bullet, so don't expect this to fix what isn't working straight away - we want to be realistic about our expectations. This also extends to expectations about how the other might respond. If you expect them to immediately change their opinion or attitude then you'll be setting your self up for disappointment and failure.
What you can expect is that an "I" statement with good intent is unlikely to do any harm, often demonstrates a willingness to communicate and collaborate, may change the current situation in some way, and can open up a conflict to possibilities you may not yet see. While the content of an issue might remain the same, the process and dynamic of the conflict are often different and that shift can be powerful in breaking a pattern of conflict.