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Why sometimes "I statements" are not enough

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

“I statements” are widely considered to be the most effective method of interpersonal communication, particularly in psychological circles. Introduced by Thomas Gordon back in 1960, the assumption is that if people communicate by saying “I feel…” or “I think…” rather than “You always…” then the listener is less likely to get defensive. This allows for more open channels of communication.

They’re certainly a great start. Anything that helps us avoid a shouting match is a good thing, particularly since once either person gets defensive, they generally can’t hear any new information, and the conflict gets escalated. But even partners who regularly use “I statements” can still have dramatic miscommunications.

One of the main reasons for this is that they’re declarative. The speaker is declaring what their experience is, what their feelings are, and by doing so is sort of building a bubble of “the truth” around themselves. But that’s their truth. It often doesn’t leave room for the thoughts and feelings of the listener, who has their own truth. Even if each person takes a turn to declare their truth, often the two bubbles just bump into each other over and over again, rather than overlapping or intermingling in a shared truth.

An alternative is to check in and ask questions about the other person’s experience, which helps to hold space for the differences and similarities of thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Something like, “It seems to me that X keeps happening, what’s your take on it?” Or, “I feel like X is stirring up a lot of emotion for me. Does that resonate with your experience?” By asking the question we’re not only not attacking, we’re letting the other person know that we value and respect their feedback and perspective.

It can be difficult to create new habits and patterns of co-existing. But willful attention along with conscious (and non-judgmental) course correction as needed will make the process much easier.


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