It’s a common tactic offered by psychologists, therapists, and marriage counselors: Use “I” as opposed to “You” when having an argument or tense discussion. Great. But why are “I” statements so useful and, more importantly, how do you actually use them the right way?
Phrases like “You always” or “You never” immediately put the other person on the defensive. The “You” is immediately accusatory. “I”, on the other hand, is not. Dipping into the first person lets you comment on how you feel about someone’s actions and makes the impact clearer without assigning blame.
“It’s solid wisdom that helps couples be less accusatory and explain your point of view with confidence and perspective,” says Dr. Sarah Rattray, leading Couples Psychologist, and founder and CEO of the Couples Communication Institute, “It also helps you make an action oriented request.”
The practice of using “I” statements helps prevent conversations from boiling over into full-on arguments. “A safe, calm discussion of different points of view can draw two people closer together, rather than pushing them farther apart,”she says. “Being curious about the partner you cherish is a great state of mind.”
“You” statements, on the other hand, are perfect fuel for an argument. In addition to be accusatory, they can also come across as presumptuous or invalidating. “They can sound as if you think you know what your partner was thinking, intending, or feeling,” she says. “Not only will you often be wrong, but it’s a great way to start a fight.”
So, yes, “I” statements should be prioritized. But what does this look like in practice? That is, in the heat of a discussion, how do you frame an “I” statement versus a “You” statement in a way that actually makes sense? After all, it’s so easy to use “you.”
Dr. Rattray was kind enough to provide a list of ten problematic “You” statements, and the “I” statement examples that could be used in their place.
- The “You” Statement: “You shouldn’t have done it that way”
The “I” Statement: “That’s an interesting way to do it. I usually do it a different way.”
- The “You” Statement: “You never think of me, you only think of yourself.”
The “I” Statement: “I love how it feels when we talk things through together before making a decision. Could you ask me next time?”
- The “You” Statement: “You just wanted to hurt me.”
The “I” Statement: “When you said that I felt hurt.”
- The “You” Statement: “You’re wrong, that’s not what I said.”
The “I” Statement: “I don’t remember it that way. I remember saying this instead. What do you remember hearing me say?”
- The “You” Statement: “You don’t know how to do that.”
The “I” Statement: “Would you like me to share with you how I would do that?”
- The “You” Statement: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The “I” Statement: “I have a different thought or experience. May I share it with you?”
- The “You” Statement: “You’re a slob.”
The “I” Statement: “I feel better when our home is tidy. Can we talk about how to blend our styles so it works for both of us?”
- The “You” Statement: “How could you have done that?”
The “I” Statement: “Please share with me what happened, I’d like to see it from your perspective.”
- The “You” Statement: “You don’t care about me.”
The “I” Statement: “I love it when you ask me about my day, that makes me feel cared for.”
- The “You” Statement: “You have no taste.”
The “I” Statement: “For me, I prefer this instead. What about that appeals to you?”
At the end of the day, using “I” statements is a way for you to take ownership of and present your thoughts and feelings without accusations or assumptions. Using them, you present your thoughts in more palatable way that doesn’t provoke or put someone on the defensive. It also allows your partner to calmly understand your point of view and how their actions may have made you feel.
In short, it’s a tactic that’s recommended for a damn good reason. Sure, it may feel strange to speak this way at first, but in time you’ll find your rhythm. Give it some time and your discussions will be all the better for it.