This is one of the most Communication major, academic-sounding posts I will probably ever put up, but I cannot overstress its importance: “I statements.”
If you’re wondering what the heck that means, here’s the gist: I statements are a tool to address conflict and disagreements. Rather than saying “you drive me crazy” or “you aren’t listening to me,” which can be accusatory and further devolve the conversation, statements are reframed to express the speaker’s feelings. The quotes above become “I feel frustrated” and “I don’t feel listened to.” Doing this takes a step back from blame and shifts the focus.
Obviously there are two participants in this scenario: one to speak and one to respond. (Note: The roles aren’t static and a healthy conversation means taking turns in each role.) So person A, the speaker, needs to formulate statements that convey what’s troubling them without immediately throwing blame. This doesn’t mean avoiding mention of someone else’s action if that’s what’s bothering you. “I felt taken for granted when you didn’t ask my thoughts first.” Totally okay. “You should have asked me first — it’s like you take me for granted.” Not so much. The difference is that the first statement is a specific explanation of what struck a nerve; perhaps not easy to hear, but hardly accusatory. It’s also worth mentioning that sarcasm can ruin even the most well-formed I statements.
Of course, to communicate at all requires someone on the receiving end to hear and respond (at least per many interpretations of communication theory). So how does one respond to I statements? I’m going to be really blunt here: LISTEN. Acknowledge their feelings/that you hear them and either offer or ask for ways you can help. This might mean apologizing or simply noting for later.
For example, when bringing up an issue with my boyfriend I try to use phrases like “I would prefer if…” or “I feel like….” Of course, sometimes I screw up and just don’t use them. Even when I do, it doesn’t magically solve all our problems; but it does help us keep the right mindset when approaching them.
This tool can also be extrapolated beyond direct conflict situations as a way to express ourselves more constructively and be more mindful of others. I have a friend who told me a while back that they really don’t like the question “how are you?” because it carries a lot of baggage and expectation (“I’m good! You?”) while also being used so often that most of us don’t even really listen to the answer. Since then, I almost never ask that friend how they are. Instead, I’ll ask what made them smile today, or what’s going on in their life — when I have time to really listen — or any other interesting question I come up with. It’s more effort for me, but it helps my friend feel listened to and valued.
I realize all of this may sound overly PC or hypersensitive, but to be incredibly frank a big part of being an adult is learning to treat the people around you like people. People who are valued, and who are worth care and effort on our parts. Like taxes, this is not taught in school, or at least not well enough (even for Communication majors). But it is important, and it is helpful. A lot of the worst conflicts in my life would have been significantly less hurtful if we had properly implemented tools like I statements.
Of course, it cannot solve all problems, and if you are experiencing any form of abuse please safely remove yourself from the situation and/or reach out for help instead of trying to fix it. Your well-being is of the utmost importance, and I statements only work if both parties really do want to lessen the problem. Also remember that not all problems can be solved — even between loved ones — but they can always be handled with grace and compassion toward yourself and the other person.
I know that was a long post, but hopefully it proves helpful in your adulting journey alongside fellow humans. Let me know your thoughts in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up. As always, thanks for reading and good luck adulting!