Starting a conversation about something we’re unhappy with is rarely easy, especially when we’re talking to the people we love. This can be especially difficult during an argument, where both sides become entrenched in our own positions1.
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So how can we explain our feelings and needs without making the other person feel defensive? The answer might lie in using I statements.
I statements (also called “I feel” statements) are a helpful tool to allow you to communicate your feelings without making assumptions about the other person’s intentions or assigning blame2.
For example, saying “you hurt me when you forgot to pick me up from work. It was really disrespectful” is a You statement. It might be true, but it’s easy to see how the other person could feel attacked. The trouble with being attacked is that we feel the need to defend ourselves.
I statements take the attack out of the conversation. In the example above, an I statement might be “I felt really hurt when you forgot to pick me up from work. It wasn’t the waiting that hurt. It felt to me as though I wasn’t important to you.”
I statements work because they’re about being honest and making ourselves vulnerable. We’re telling the other person how we feel and asking them to work with us to find a solution.
Using I statements in relationships helps us to approach problems as a couple, working together rather than against each other. When we pull together as a couple to solve problems in our relationship, it can help strengthen our bonds rather than push us apart3.
Using I statements rather than You statements can help you improve your communication in your relationship in different ways. Here are some examples of how to use I statements and how they work.
One of the most common uses for I statements for couples is to help you express yourself without having to defend how you feel. When you have an argument or conflict in your relationship, it’s easy to fall into the habit of arguing about what happened. This misses the importance of your emotions.
Let’s use the example of having an argument about your partner not doing their share of the housework. A ‘normal’ argument might involve them listing all of the things they’ve done and you replying with a list of things you think they should have done but haven’t. It becomes about events, rather than feelings.
Using an I statement changes that dynamic. If you say “I feel hurt when I see your dirty towels on the bedroom floor because it feels like I’m being taken for granted”, your partner can’t say that you’re wrong. You do feel like you’re being taken for granted.
They can explain that they don’t feel like they’re taking advantage, but that’s ok. That helps you understand their feelings. Now you’re both talking about how you feel and how you interpret situations, which is great.
Practice using I statements to get used to expressing your feelings and needs. Try saying “I would find it much easier if we could … because…”
Using I statements in this way doesn’t mean that your partner will agree with you or do what you’re asking but it does make it harder for your feelings and needs to be ignored.
It’s really hurtful when someone you love accuses you of ‘nagging’. It feels like your feelings and opinions are being dismissed and as if you’re being told that you’re in the wrong.
If you’re using I statements, you can avoid that accusation… because you’re not nagging. Telling someone how you feel about something isn’t nagging. It’s giving them information about the effects of their actions.
For example, you might have agreed with your partner how to split the household tasks. If they don’t do their tasks, it’s easy to get frustrated and say “you never do your share of the housework. We even agreed who would do what but you’re still not doing it. I shouldn’t have to keep reminding you. You’re so frustrating.”
That might be true, but it’s rarely helpful. Instead, try saying “I find it very stressful when we’ve agreed who is going to do specific tasks and I notice that yours haven’t been done. I feel like I’m not important enough to be listened to and I become anxious about needing to bring it up again”.
This I statement moves the conversation away from what they did (which can be seen as nagging) and onto what it means to you, which they might never have understood before.
I statements can also be used to help you understand what is happening within a situation. When you tell your partner “this is how I feel about this”, you’re giving them permission to tell you how they feel.
By removing the sense that you’re blaming each other, I statements encourage you and your partner to try to understand the root of a problem4.
For example, lots of couples have arguments about timekeeping, where one person is usually ready earlier and gets annoyed at having to wait for the other person. Using You statements can lead to arguments about whose fault it is and why.
For example, “You’re always making us late” or “you keep rushing me”.
If you both use I statements instead, you can start to understand the root of the problem.
The person who is ready early might explain that “I become anxious when I have to wait because I feel embarrassed when I show up late to something”.
The person who is running late can then give their perspective, such as “I feel disrespected when you tell me to hurry. I feel like other people’s opinions are more important than mine.”
Once you both understand each other’s feelings, the situation might be easier to deal with.Often, these kinds of I statements lead to deeper conversations about why we feel that way and our past experiences that lead us to interpret situations like that.
In the example above, the person who is always early might have had a parent who became angry or shamed them if they were late. Explaining that allows the other person to understand the deeper emotions behind a seemingly simple argument.
As well as understanding a situation, using I statements in a relationship can help you create a more team-oriented mindset. If you’re having lots of arguments and misunderstandings in your relationship, try talking to your partner about using more I statements.
You could say “we keep arguing and it feels like we’re never making things any better. I’ve been looking into it and there’s something called I statements which I think might be able to help us. Would you be willing to give it a try?”
Working together on using I statements can help you get used to keeping each other accountable and working together.
We often talk about how using I statements can help us communicate with the people we love, but it can also help us change how we think about situations.
The way we speak, and especially our self talk, affects our self-image. When we make I statements, we’re focusing on your feelings and needs without looking for someone to blame. This can help us take responsibility for our own reactions, without excusing other people’s actions5.
For example, saying “you make me angry” is passive. It implies that the other person controls whether you are angry or not. An I statement such as “I feel angry about that” can help you feel more in control of your reactions.
Try using I statements more in your self-talk and see whether it helps you to feel more in control of your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions.
Making more I statements vs You statements can take practice but self-reflection is key. You can’t explain your feelings to someone if you don’t know what they are. Journaling or writing your thoughts down might help you to understand exactly what you’re trying to say.
An I statement is a way of telling someone how you feel without assigning blame. You talk about your feelings and needs rather than their actions. Good I statement examples include:
“I feel upset when…”
“I would like to feel…”
“I become anxious and afraid when … because…”
I statements aren’t manipulative. They’re an open and honest way of explaining how you feel. Manipulative people might sometimes rephrase You statements to sound like I statements to control a conversation. For example, saying “I feel like you’re always disrespectful” isn’t an I statement. It’s a You statement in disguise.
Did you enjoy this list of ways that I statements vs You statements can help improve your relationship? Practice using I statements to help you communicate more effectively with everyone from boyfriends to bosses.
What do you think about using I statements? Is it easy or do you have to work at it? Let us know in the comments and please share this article if you found it helpful.