How many of you have heard of the concept of “I statements”?
If you went to college, you probably heard it a lot from people. If you have been in counseling, your counselor probably brought it up a few times.
Want to know a secret? I see people using I statements incorrectly. All. The. Time.
I statements are not simply starting a sentence with “I think”, “I feel”, or “I believe”. Just because I put an “I” at the beginning of my sentence does not mean I am expressing my experience.
What I often see is people masking a “you statement” as an “I statement”.
Here is an example:
“I feel like you never care about me.”
Do you see it? Do you see where this sentence, that starts with an “I feel”, is actually a “you statement”? How it is projecting my interpretation of someone else’s experience?
If you struggle with seeing this, take off the “I feel like” part of the statement. What are you left with?
“You never care about me.”
BOOM. Mic drop.
Not really, because, you know, this statement is not helpful and does not create an atmosphere for fighting fair with your spouse.
So then, how do we use “I statements” correctly?
That is a great question! I can help you with that one!
There are four important aspects to phrasing an “I statement” correctly:
- Focus on your experience.
- Check your assumptions about the other person.]
- Know what you are going to say before you say it.
- Ask if your partner understands before moving forward.
1. Focus on your experience.
The primary purpose of using “I statements” is to share YOUR experience of a situation or problem. This is an opportunity for you to help your partner understand what you think about a problem, or what you feel in a situation. It is also a time for you to share your beliefs about different issues.
One of the things you need to be clear about with your “I statement” is your thoughts, feelings, or beliefs.
Ask yourself, “What am I trying to share here?” Are you trying to express how you responded emotionally to a situation? Are you trying to share what you believe is a priority?
If you can be clear about the part of your experience you want to share, it can help you be more clear about what to say.
Here are some examples of the difference between thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.
Thought: “I think that we should figure out what to do with our meals and grocery shopping.”
Feeling: “I feel overwhelmed when I am doing the meal planning and cooking and cleaning the fridge and dishes each week.”
Belief: “I believe it is important to plan our meals each week.”
Do you notice how “you” is not a word in any of these sentences? And they still convey my experience of the situation. This is how it looks when you focus on your own experience.
2. Check your assumptions about your partner.
Let’s be real. We all like to think we know what other people are thinking.
The person standing behind me in the line at the grocery store is judging me for the bottle of wine I have on the belt. The person in the car in front of me thinks he is a god because he just cut me off. My kid’s teacher thinks I am a terrible mom because my kindergartener doesn’t pronounce “r” correctly. (Side note: if this last one is you, I recommend talking with a speech therapist at the school for reassurance around when they develop specific language sounds. Fight the mom guilt!)
At UCLA, they talked about this idea of “mindsight”, the concept of focusing on the internal processing world. When we use our mindsight, we are constantly reading the minds of others and assuming we know what they are thinking/experiencing.
Guess how often we are correct when we use mindsight on other people?
Go ahead, take a guess!
10-15% of the time!
Yes, you are reading that correctly. We are using our mindsight tool effectively only 10% of the time, only 10% of the time am I able to correctly guess what the person behind me at the grocery store is thinking.
I don’t know about you, but 10% is awfully low to me. When my car tells me I have 10% of my oil life left, I call the dealership and schedule a change. It may not be an emergency, but I sure as heck ain’t gonna let it get there!
So when we are having a conversation with our spouse, we probably get this right a little more often than with the person at the grocery store. So let’s double the average with our spouse.
That is still only 20-30%. That is still worse than a failing grade.
Let’s just admit that we suck at reading our spouse’s mind and move on.
So how do we check the assumptions we have when formatting the “I statement” we need in fighting fair?
The fastest and easiest way to do that is by completely taking out the word “you” from your sentence. If there is a “you” in your sentence, you are probably assuming what your partner is experiencing.
Take the feelings example from the previous step. “I feel overwhelmed when I am doing the meal planning and cooking and cleaning the fridge and dishes each week.”
If I had left it with the original line I wanted to say before, it would have sounded like this: “I feel overwhelmed because you don’t want to help with the dishes or cooking.”
See the difference? The second one assumes that my partner doesn’t want to help. Even if he has had comments in the past, I am making an “I statement” that reflects my experience, not his.
So I need to keep his experience out of my "I statement" to make sure I am fighting fair here.
3. Know what you are going to say before you say it.
I mean it.
Write it down on a flashcard, put it in your phone. However you need to so that you can have it when you need it.
Sometimes having hard conversations can bring up a lot of emotions, and emotions can cloud your logical thinking, and then you can completely forget what you had worked so hard to get right before.
Writing down your “I statements” beforehand also helps to make sure that you don’t forget something important.
I work well with healthy confrontation (emphasis on HEALTHY). I know lots of people who do not handle confrontation well, whether it is healthy or not. They can either become mean and aggressive (to the point of destroying relationships) or they can shut down and not say anything they need to share (to avoid destroying the relationship).
Writing out your “I statements” before having a difficult conversation can help you from falling into either of these categories.
4. Ask if your partner understands before moving forward.
This is really important.
Do not assume that because you worded your “I statement” correctly means your partner has now had the revelation into your experience and will transform all future behaviors to meet your every need!
Sounds dramatic. I know. But you’d be surprised how often people think this.
Asking your partner if they understand gives them an opportunity to ask questions for clarification, and helps to focus the current part of the discussion on understanding over the desire to respond. (More tips on this concept coming soon!)
Now, this one concept does not mean your fight will be fair from here on out.
Hang on, let me say that again.
THIS IS NOT THE END ALL BE ALL FOR A FAIR FIGHT!
This is just one small step you can take to make the difficult conversation more of a fair fight. And potentially a little less chaotic.
Take care, friends!
Alisha Sweyd, LMFT