Communicate with "I" Statements
Say What You Thought, not What They Did
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INTRODUCTION: "I" statements put the focus and responsibility on the communicator. Thus, they are a lot less likely to be resented. Unlike "You" statements, which put the receiver of the communication on the defensive, "I" statements are a way to convey your message without immediately alienating your listener.
"I" statements do not guarantee success, but they are your best chance of getting your message heard. If the person is open to considering your needs and wants, they will be much more likely to do so if you use "I" messages than if you use "You" or blaming messages. Simply, they increase your odds of being heard. Make statements not accusations!
BASIC FORMAT: I feel . . . when . . . because . . . .
FIRST PART: "I feel . . ." The first part is used to state what it is that you feel about what happened, or what it was that you felt about what happened. You need only use one or two feeling words for the first part. For example, write in "hurt, sad, afraid, mad, glad, happy, lonely, discounted, unloved, anxious, guilty, excited, ashamed, or shocked." In Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) shorthand this is the C part.
SECOND PART: "when . . ." The second part is used to let the other person know what the event was that you are referring to. It is the 'what happened' part of the "I" statement. The second part can contain a 'you', and it is the only one of the three parts that you should allow to contain a 'you' when you are expressing hurt or angry feelings.
If you are expressing happy or excited feelings, then you can use a 'you' in both the second and third parts if you want to. For example, write in "when you yelled at me, when you were late, when you forgot my birthday, etc." In REBT shorthand this is the A part.
THIRD PART: "because . . ." The third part is used to explain what you thought about the event, about what happened. This is where you let the other person know how you interpreted the situation. Answer this question for the third part: "What did the event mean to you?" For example, write in "I thought you didn't like, respect, trust, care, etc., about me." In REBT shorthand this is the B part.
RATIONAL EMOTIVE BEHAVIOR THERAPY (REBT): Now that we know the three parts of an "I" statement, we can understand the whole expression using the paradigm, the model of REBT. According to REBT, we have most of our feelings about events, experiences, and occurrences only after we think about ourselves in relation to them. When we use "I" statements, we are communicating in a different order from that which produced our feelings. Our feelings are last, C, but we are putting them first to disarm our listener and to defuse the communication process.
The actual order of events would be "when because feel" or A » B » C. However, we express them as "feel when because" so that our feelings are regarded as the primary message, as the part that we want to be considered most important.
EXAMPLE: "I felt embarrassed and ashamed when you found typing errors in this handout, because I thought it meant that I was a fool and inadequate."
If the person makes the mistake of challenging your reality (see the page Don't Argue Reality), you can then inform them that you said "I think it means" and not "it is." The point being that you are not blaming or damning them for your feelings. Instead, you are taking responsibility for your feelings based on your thinking.
You can then say that your intent was to help them to understand how you think and feel. You can then add that it would be nice if they took how you felt and thought into consideration, but that it was not required. Additionally, you can tell them that they are free to keep their own view, perspective, or interpretation of the topic just as it before you shared yours if they so desire.
LONG FORMAT: Here is another format that you may prefer or find useful in some situations. In this system, you use four "I" messages in rapid succession. The correct order is: I sense .... I think .... I feel .... I want ..... The first "I" message is about what you sense, for example, what you see or hear. The second "I" message is about what you think or how you judge. The third "I" message is about what you feel. And the fourth "I" message is about what you want or desire.
FIRST MESSAGE: "I sensed . . . ." The first message is used to state what it is that you are experiencing. You are relating to the other person as accurate a description of your physical experience as you can. You tell them just what you see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. You do not interpret or add to it. You do your best just to report objectively what you have observed. It is the 'what happened' "I" statement. For example, "I saw you talking to an attractive woman." In REBT shorthand this is the A.
SECOND MESSAGE: "I thought . . . ." The second message is used to let the other person know what you interpreted the event to mean. The purpose here is to tell them how you understood what you sensed. This is the 'meaning' "I" statement. This is where you admit to the other person how you interpreted the situation.
Convey here the meaning the event had for you and nothing else. Neither justify it nor disparage it. For example, write in "I thought you didn't like, respect, trust, care, etc., about me." In this example, you might say "I thought you were flirting with her." In REBT shorthand this is the B.
THIRD MESSAGE: "I felt . . . ." The third message conveys your feelings about what you thought about what you sensed. Be careful not to add to your feelings or to try to rationalize them here. Keep it simple. Keep it to the point. For example, write in "hurt, sad, afraid, mad, glad, happy, lonely, discounted, unloved, anxious, guilty, excited, ashamed, or shocked." In this example you might say, "I am feeling jealous of your attentions to her." In REBT shorthand this is the C.
FOURTH MESSAGE: "I want . . . ." The fourth message is used to express what you want the other person to do differently for you. This message is used to make requests, to seek changes from the other person. For example, "I would prefer it if you would not spend so much time with attractive and available women when we go to parties."
You may still not get what you want. But at least you shared your experiences, gave the other person your reasons, and shared your feelings with them. If they chose to respond, all well and good. But if they did not. You still managed to express your true self. Being able to say what you think and feel--without blaming others for it--is a true measure of mental health.
For information on styles of communicating see: 25 Relational Styles.
QUOTATIONS VARIOUS SOURCES
"Two monologues do not make a dialogue."--Jeff Daly
"Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness."--Margaret Millar
"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."--Dr. Seuss
"There are very few people who don't become more interesting when they stop talking."--Mary Lowry
"Some man holdeth his tongue, because he hath not to answer: and some keepeth silence, knowing his time."--Ecclesiasticus 20:6
"Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be."--Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The most precious things in speech are pauses."--Ralph Richardson
"Don't speak unless you can improve on the silence."--Spanish proverb
"Foolishness always results when the tongue outraces the brain."--Unknown
"Among my most prized possessions are words that I have never spoken."--Orson Card
"Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones."--Proverbs 16:24
"Draw me not away with the wicked, and with the workers of iniquity, which speak peace to their neighbours, but mischief is in their hearts."--Psalms 28:3
"But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation;"--I Peter 1:15
"The first duty of love is to listen."--Paul Tillich, 1886-1965