Anyone who has been to therapy, or some type of communication workshop has heard that a good communication technique is using I-statements; however, not everyone uses them correctly. Even when used correctly, they can backfire when a person becomes overly defensive when they feel attacked or blamed (Even with the use of I-statements).
The purpose of I-statements is to express a person’s feelings without attributing blame to the other person who is being communicated with. But this, however, is problematic. A person can say “I feel ashamed because you embarrassed me in public”. That can cause someone to become on the defensive. There is still blame attributed to another person in this scenario. It is no wonder that a person would feel defensive or attacked when being blamed for someone’s feelings.
If for instance, someone was to say, “I feel disrespected when you show up late for dinner and don’t call me”. This is still saying “YOU” did something wrong. If it were to be reframed to a more adaptive way of communicating, it would sound something more to the effect of: “I feel disrespected when I don’t receive a phone call letting me know (‘person’) is going to be late for dinner”. There is a huge difference in those 2 statements, the “you” is completely taken out and the behavior is all that is being described. The lack of communication from the other person is the actual problem not the person themselves. Now while yes, the person committed the behavior but there is less significance on it being about the person—only the behavior which is the technical problem. We’re not talking about not taking accountability for an action or having someone not take the blame for the action. We’re simply talking about attributing blame to the behavior being committed which doesn’t make the person a bad guy or indicate they are just completely wrong or deficient in some way. Many people would take the defensive stance due to assuming the person expressing their feelings is blaming them, rather than addressing the behavior needing to be corrected. This form of I-statement takes the mental load off the guilt factor in saying “you”. It places the blame on what really needs to be addressed: The behavior.
However, there are other steps that need to be taken, that not too many will address: the request, and the solution. Once the statement is made about feeling disrespected by not receiving a phone call about the person being late, the request should be made. “I would feel encouraged by receiving word so that I know what to do about dinner and I’m not just left waiting.” That is great, but also not enough. There needs to be a feasible and mutual arrangement to decide upon what needs to happen and how. How will the problem be corrected? “Do you think it would be possible to hear from you, in case you might be running late, that way we are both in communication with each other and I know what’s going on?”
Expressing communication this way can most certainly help a person to be less defensive but doesn’t always guarantee a person will not be defensive. In these cases, it should be explained that it’s the behavior that you want to see changed, and not the person. In most cases no one wants someone to try to change them, but rather knowing it’s the behaviors that are needing to be altered can make a huge impact on mutual communication and understanding. A person’s worth is not determined by their mistakes for we are all human and as stated by Alexander Pope: “To err is human to forgive, divine.”
Tips for helpful, meaningful, and more positive communication to use with I-statements:
- Say what you mean and mean what you say.
- Using a soft but firm tone can be helpful when speaking assertively with someone who may be defensive or escalated.
- Inflection matters. If you speak with a raised voice, it automatically will put someone on the defensive.
- How you say something matters, depending on which words you emphasize.
- Avoid “always”, “nevers”, “shoulds”, when communicating as these are over generalized statements when nothing is ever black or white.
- Take a time out if you need to, but just don’t walk away without communicating to the other person your intent to take a time out, saying how much time you might need to calm down, and when you will most likely return to come back to the conversation.
- One person speaks at a time, hear each other out when communicating. Don’t interrupt the other person, by showing respect and ask if the person is finished so you may begin speaking your point of view.
- Avoid blaming and also take accountability for your own feelings, thoughts, and actions.
- When trying to compromise, it’s important that during negotiation both come to a mutual agreement, as to avoid one or both people not being happy with the result or outcome.
Sometimes though, we all need a helping hand, and if you are having difficulty communicating with loved ones or with your partner, after trying the I-statements method of communication without any good result, it may be time to consider therapy. A therapist can help facilitate positive and healthy communication between parties. It’s a good option for when things just aren’t going anywhere, and parties are not willing to accommodate one another.
At Clarity Family Therapy Services, we have trained therapists who can help you repair common miscommunication difficulties, where you can learn about setting boundaries, the differences in communication styles, and learning how to express feelings in a positive manner. People all desire to be heard, understood, and accommodated, so reach out today if you feel you need the help of a trained therapist, who can help facilitate communication positively and integrate all parties involved to find mutual ground.