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Boost communication with “I” statements

Healthy communication requires a balance between being a speaker and a listener. When you’re the speaker, express yourself clearly and concisely with “I” statements.

An “I” statement requires you to start a conversation with “I” instead of “you,” but that’s not where it ends. “I” statements also challenge you to think about why a certain situation matters. What’s bothering you about the events that occurred? Try to connect your feelings to those thoughts and events. And phrase your “I” statement as follows:

  • “I feel (describe your emotions) when (describe event) happens.”

Explore the following examples.

Example 1: The dishwasher

Imagine that your partner gets home from work an hour before you, and the dishwasher needs to be emptied. When you arrive home, your partner’s lying on the couch and watching TV—while the dishwasher is untouched. At first, you might respond by saying:

  • “You didn’t empty the dishwasher.”
  • “The dishwasher isn’t going to empty itself.”
  • “So you were waiting for me to empty the dishwasher, huh?”

The tricky thing with these types of responses is that they’re more likely to elicit a defensive reaction from your partner. He or she might respond, “You’re always nagging me to do things,” or “Do you think I’m dumb? I know the dishwasher won’t empty itself.”

Try using an “I” statement instead:

  • “I feel frustrated when I get home and things around here haven’t been done, when it appears there was time to get them done.”

This might seem too “proper” at first, but phrasing your feelings this way doesn’t outwardly attack your partner. It enables you to express yourself while she or he hears you out. Then, you can discuss the issue and explore solutions together. It enables your partner to respond by saying, “Oh, what needs to get done? I didn’t realize there were dishes to put away.” Or he or she might say, “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I just had a really tough day and needed some time to zone out before getting into things at home.”

Example 2: Date night

Suppose that you have dinner plans with your partner on Saturday night. And unbeknownst to you, your loved one invites friends along. When he or she tells you, you might react by saying:

  • “Why would you invite them?”
  • “You invited those people? Ugh, I really don’t want to hang out with them.”
  • “You always do this and invite other people to hang out when I thought it was just going to be you and me!”

There are a lot of “you” references in these responses, which again can trigger defensiveness. These statements are likely to come across as critical. They also can generate a response from your partner that might sound like, “Gosh, I was just trying to be nice. Forget everything—I’ll cancel all the plans!”

Try using an “I” statement instead:

  • “I feel confused and upset when we have plans, and then others are invited. I was looking forward to spending time together—just the two of us. When others are invited, I wonder if you’re interested in hanging out with me alone.”

This response shows that you’re taking ownership of your feelings about the situation. You’re respectfully and assertively expressing your thoughts and opinions. “I” statements then enable your partner to respond by saying something such as, “I didn’t realize that’s how you felt. Of course I want to spend time with you.”

Debrief

Phrasing your thoughts into “I” statements helps communication go smoothly because it lessens the chances the listener will feel attacked. Using an “I” statement also helps you take ownership of what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing. For more tips on healthy communication, check out HPRC’s Basic Training for Couples—Communication.