The Necessary Communication Tool

Do you ever struggle with communication?

As a therapist, communication is a topic that comes up often. It’s not surprising, considering humans communicate all day long.  Literally. Whether it’s verbal or non-verbal, communication is one of our most used skills. The use of the word “skill” is purposeful. Communication is not easy. It’s a skill that takes continual fine-tuning and self-reflection.

That’s why communication comes up so often in therapy! There are times when we struggle to effectively communicate our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it’s with a co-worker, other times it’s an on-going issue with a partner, or a maybe a miscommunication with a friend.

One of the phrases that we hear most often is, “How do I tell them that?” or “I have no idea how I would share that.”

That’s where one of our favorite tools comes in: “I” statements.

What’s an “I” statement?   

An “I” statement is language that focuses on your own feelings and perspective. Essentially, when communicating, you want to focus on using “I” instead of “you.”

Psychologist, Thomas Gordon, developed the “I” statement concept in the 1970s. Gordon paid attention to how using the word “you” was associated with blame and defensiveness. Oppositely, he noticed that referring to your own feelings through using “I” leads to increased openness and avoids accusations.

Dr. Gordon claims there are three components to an effective “I” statement:

  1. A brief, non-blameful description of the BEHAVIOR you find unacceptable.
  2. Your FEELINGS.
  3. The tangible and concrete EFFECT of the behavior on you

This concept is widely used today in by therapists, teachers and psychologists. Couples expert, Dr. John Gottman, utilizes and highly regards the concept in his work. He identifies “I” statements as a way to start softly. Gottman explains that starting softly means sharing a complaint or struggle, but without blame or criticism. This makes it more likely that you will be heard and understood, rather than creating defensiveness.

Though Gottman specifically works with couples, “I” statements and soft start-ups are beneficial in any type of relationship. The skills is applicable in any difficult conversation, regardless of the relationship type.

How do you use an “I” statement?

To steer clear of blaming, keep the focus on yourself as often as possible. It may be easy to say, “I feel angry because you annoy me,” but that places blame. Try explaining the details about what annoys you. Try something like this: “I feel angry because I’m overwhelmed with all of the cleaning. I appreciate when I have help.”

Notice the difference? Keeping the focus on you and your experiences allows for sharing feelings and experiences in an open, non-threatening way.

Here are some examples of positive “I” statements:

  • I feel overwhelmed because all the house work and I’m not feeling supported.
  • I’m feeling lonely because we haven’t spent much time together. I really appreciate when we have time to connect.
  • I am frustrated because I am not feeling listen to. When that happens, I feel discouraged.

Simple, right? It’s definitely a straightforward concept, but it does take practice. Our first instinct is often to blame. Blame is rarely productive. It’s purpose is to release frustration, but often does not lead to working through issues. To read more about blame, click here.

“I” statements communicate respect and openness. This communication skill is applicable in any relationship. Try paying attention to how you communicate with others. See if you can adjust your wording to utilize “I” statements. Notice how this small change can affect your conversations!

If you’re looking for support with communication or the anxiety that may surround it, reach out to one of our therapists! We would love to help.

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If you’re in the Chicago area and interested in therapy services, you can learn more about starting here. Or if you’re ready to get started, reach out to us and schedule an appointment.