Using “I” statements without feeling foolish

Image credit:  Anders V

Image credit: Anders V

If you study communication or have been in the 7th grade, someone, somewhere, taught you to use “I” statements rather than blaming statements to let people know you are upset.  The idea is if you express yourself in a way that doesn’t escalate the conflict everyone’s needs will be met and the world will be a better place.  And that is all true, except–

It’s hard to do it with a straight face.

I mean, can you imagine responding to the boss who likes to humiliate you in the weekly staff meeting by saying “I feel embarrassed when you yell at me in front of all of these people.  Could you speak to me more respectfully?

It’s a perfectly reasonable request, stated very clearly–and yet unlikely to land–at least in the situations where you most need it.

So what to do?  You could:

  • Yell back
  • Suck it up
  • Say nothing in the meeting and trash talk him behind his back*

Or–you can try a modified “I” statement.

The real difficulty with the traditional “I” statement is that it’s awkward.   It involves two rare communication techniques (expressing emotions in words and asking for what you want directly) squished back to back. So unless you have a lot of practice, or are in an environment where this form of communication is common, (hint–if people are wearing tie-dye and/or using the term “far out” without irony you may be in such a place) it’s really hard to pull off.

Luckily, you don’t have to study non-violent communication for years or move to a commune to benefit from “I” statements–you can begin by splitting the statement in half.  In other words, rather than sharing your emotional state and making a direct request, try acknowledging your emotional state in your head and then expressing your request out loud.

Most of the time this request is going to be for more information, or for the same information to be delivered in another way. Why?  Laird Schwab calls it virtual earwax.  Strong emotions can act like earwax–making it very hard to really hear what’s going on.  By acknowledging your emotional state in your head, you are able to remove some of that earwax (assuming you catch it soon enough), so you will be ready to have information repeated in a way it can get through.

The way you word the request for information will be slightly different depending on the situation, but the way through each involves a process called appreciative inquiry–the practice of asking honest, neutral, and open ended questions for the purpose of increasing one’s understanding of another perspective. (as defined by the Mach 30 consensus policy)

For example, going back to being yelled at in the staff meeting,  if after acknowledging in your head that you are feeling defensive (or whatever the emotion is) and deciding, despite his delivery method, there may be something valuable in what he’s trying to communicate, you can set your own upset aside for a moment and  say:

  • I understand you are unhappy with my work.  Could you give me some specific advice on how to make this report better for next time?
  • I want to do better next time.  How can we change the process so we are both happier next week?
  • I want to make sure I understand where you are coming from–could you repeat the action steps for me?

If you are the boss, you don’t have to yell to get your way.  When you are disappointed (or what ever the emotion is) try asking:

  • What can I do to make my expectations more clear on the next assignment?
  • Can you tell me what happened so we can avoid those circumstances in the future?
  • What do you need from me to be successful?

Why this works

Most of the value of expressing your emotional state in words lies in  recognizing for yourself what you are feeling so you can decide how to respond using your emotions as information rather than the driver of your behavior.  You get this benefit by naming your emotion in your head–so in many situations you can skip saying it out loud.  In this way you only use one rare communication technique– which is easier to execute and easier for others to hear.

By using appreciative inquiry, you provide an opening for others to express themselves clearly.  Since being understood is a basic human need, almost everyone responds positively to the opportunity.

Why bother?

If you are the victim of crappy communicators why should it fall to you to do all the work?

  1. Because there is nothing you can do about the behavior of others but you can change how you respond.
  2. It’s to your advantage to get as much feedback as possible in most situations.  Unfortunately, much of the feedback we get from others is delivered in an emotional package that can be hard to decipher.  By first clearing your own emotional ear wax and then using appreciative inquiry  to help others deliver information in a way  that you are able to hear, you gain the advantage of getting a clearer picture of  the situation at hand.

*While I don’t suggest passive-aggression as a tool for getting your needs met, it can provide hours of internet fun.

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7 responses to “Using “I” statements without feeling foolish

  1. Great ideas! I could actually use this technique at work. You’re right-on that the military (AF) isn’t typically one for keeping in-touch with people’s feelings, but this is a good alternative. Even though they pay lip service to “taking care of your people” and being a good “wingman” this is less often put into practice.

    • Thanks Greg! I use this technique all the time but I mostly work in circles where expressing one’s feelings is pretty common place. It’s great to hear it also lands for people working in very different environments.

  2. oh, and the passive aggressive “hours of internet fun” was exactly what I needed to lift my mood before the last final of the quarter. Thanks!

  3. This is great, Maureen! Many personal relationship will benefit from your tips – I am thinking especially of marriages. :)

    • Hi Wardeh–I certainly use a lot of appreciative inquiry in my personal relationships–and it makes a big difference.

      In personal relationships (esp marriages and other relationships at that level) I would try to work toward expressing the emotion as well as the question–it will be a little awkward at first but in the long run it will help you stop inadvertently hurting your partner’s feelings. (And, of course, help your partner to stop inadvertently hurting yours.) Plus, it’s a lot safer to feel foolish with your husband than it is with your boss :)

  4. Loved your take on this. Very practical and insightful.

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