Communication How-to

“I” Statements: use with caution!

My previous post recommended the use of “I” statements as a tool to prevent conflict escalation. In the interest of brevity, I omitted an important caveat that I would like to address here.

To recap, “I” statements enable us to avoid using the common trigger word “You.” That simple pronoun is often heard as a form of accusation because it’s usually followed by some form of blame (“You screwed up!”), exaggeration (“You’re always holding up rehearsal!”) or attribution of motivation (“You’re trying to sabotage the project!”). It’s easy to assume bad intentions based on the negative impact another’s words or actions have on us, and that assumption is usually incorrect. Thus an otherwise productive conflict becomes personalized, and the downward spiral begins. However, using “I” statements forces the speaker to speak from and about his/her own experience, which is inherently personal and necessarily subjective. In owning your feelings, you acknowledge yours as one possible perspective (not a universal “truth”), and avoid adding guilt to the potent brew of emotions the other person in the conflict may be feeling.

Recall that our proposed “I” statement model was as follows:

“I am/feel ______ [describe feeling] about/when ______ [describe issue] and I would appreciate if ______ [invitation to discuss a resolution to the problem].”

For example, “I feel angry when I’m interrupted in meetings, and I would really appreciate if we could take a few minutes to discuss how we can debate more respectfully.” Note how this is a much less incendiary statement than, “You’re always interrupting me!”

This brings us to the caveat – or caveats plural, because there are two: The first is that “I” statements require practice, like any other conflict resolution skill. The second, and more problematic, is that when framed improperly they can increase the risk of conflict escalation. In other words, they can accidentally trigger the very thing we are trying to avoid.

Thoughts & judgments can be triggers too

Conflict can be inadvertently escalated when we insert a thought or a judgment into our “I” statement, instead of a genuine feeling we’re experiencing. Again, this is easy to do in the midst of emotional turmoil when it’s hard to identify exactly what we’re feeling, or when we don’t want to admit to fear, anger, or other unwelcome emotional states. The problem with thoughts or judgments is that they are easily mistaken for blame or accusations, which we know are conflict escalation triggers. If your “I” statement is, “I feel ignored,” for example, that’s a thought or judgment about your predicament; it’s not how you feel about it, which might be frustration, anger, sadness, etc. So this statement can have the same effect as, “You’re ignoring me.” Ignored is a verb in the past tense. The implication is that someone had to do the ignoring, and obviously it must be the other person in the conflict. It’s still an accusation, albeit indirect.

Note, however, that anger, sadness, and most other genuine emotions are nouns. The word cloud below contains some of the common negative feelings in the human emotional spectrum; chances are if you’re experiencing any of them you’re probably in a conflict situation:

Word cloud of negative feelings

Now compare and contrast that list with the following selection of thoughts or judgments:

Word cloud of blaming words

You can see how the second group of expressions can be interpreted as blaming words that can perpetuate or exacerbate a conflict, even when used in an “I” statement.

It’s important to zero in on the actual emotion(s) as best you can, because that’s one thing about which you can never be wrong; you feel what you feel, and no one can claim otherwise. Identifying the feeling is often easier said than done in the midst of the upset, so it’s OK to take the time to experience the feeling, process it, then resume the conversation when safe to do so. Another option is to simply say that you’re feeling full of emotion (another noun!) and then follow up with the description of the issue or problem and an invitation to discuss it, as per our model. – kda

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