To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of dishing out ‘skills’ and ‘tips’ for relationships. I’m definitely not a relationship expert. And there are an infinite number of communication skills I could endeavour to develop. But mostly I reckon that we all have within us the ‘skills’ we need to communicate effectively; most of us do it fine in the majority of our relationships. But once our relationships become a bit more significant to us, or maybe somewhat more intimate, we seem to start getting it a bit wrong.
Probably because the stakes are a bit higher. We might start protecting ourselves a bit more. Or our partners. Or our children. And the messages we try and send get less clearer. More muddier.
Let’s pretend we’re meeting our sister for a dinner party. She’s late. Once again, she’s neglected to send us a text to keep us updated. When she finally manages to arrive, we end up erupting: “You’re always late. You never text me to let me know!” These could be pretty true statements. But there also could be better ways to get our frustration across.
In my work we like to use the “I feel” statements. And we use them a lot. We ask our clients to use them. As colleagues we use them with each other. And the other night I found myself banging on to a friend about how to use them as well. So much for not dishing out the skills.
At first when I encountered the plethora of “I Statements” coming from my smart, informed, and sensitive clients and colleagues, I was a bit perturbed. I began to argue against them. I’d whinge about the processing of our feelings and behaviours would get in the way of our actual work-related output. But once I got used to it, I started to learn so much more. About communicating. About relationships. But mostly about myself. There is a kernel of something true and important in the idea of an “I statement” that in my opinion, is worth taking a pause to consider what’s actually going on.
As a rough guide, expressing our feelings and needs through an “I statement” can work a bit like this:
- Making a non-evaluative observation.
For example., ‘When you don’t show up on time …’
- Identifying how you feel in response to the observation.
For example., ‘When you don’t show up on time, I felt hurt.’
- Linking your feelings to your thoughts or needs.
For example., 'When you don’t show up on time, I felt hurt, because it makes me feel as if you don’t care about our arrangements.'
- Making a request.
For example., ‘When you don’t show up on time, I felt hurt, because it makes me feel as if you don’t care about our arrangements. Would you be able to send a text next time if the arrangements need to change to let me know? What’s it like for you, hearing me say this?’
An “I” statement is helpful in a few different ways. For both the listener and the speaker. Using the “I” means that we take full responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and/or actions. Instead of blaming the other person, we can (hopefully) clearly emphasise our thoughts and feelings to the listener.
In general, people tend to be more receptive to hearing about how we feel, rather than taking on blame or criticism for something that they allegedly did – which is often how a “you” statement can come across. A “you” statement can trigger the fight or flight response in a person, whereas an “I” statement can keep the other person feeling safe. Our most productive conversations are going to happen when both people are calm and their thoughts are in their rational, pre-frontal cortex part of the brain. If we are able to actually listen, process and internalise feedback, rather than getting caught up and feeling defensive, that’s when the magic happens. The magic of intimate relationships.
What does all of this do? Yes, it does tend to reduce the sense of accusation, and therefore the possibility of a defensive response. But more importantly it forces us to really think about what it’s like for us. What is this moment of pain or distress that we are in and trying to communicate. And then it forces us to try and let our significant person into that space and what it’s like for us.
Isn’t this the very essence of empathy? The ability to put one’s self in the shoes of another, to place our self into the experience of someone else? When I think about what something is really like for ME, I can touch the depth of feeling at the heart of that experience. And when I share that with someone close to me, I engender a sense of empathy in him/her. And now we are connecting.
The “I statement” isn’t so much about the “I” and where it is, but more about sharing our experiences with those important to us. If we want to have close relationships with people around us, we can choose to speak in depth about your own perceptions, intentions, and feelings. We can define our relationships by speaking to what they are like for us.