Our ability to communicate verbally with others is valuable and perhaps often taken for granted. We have an abundance of choices when we communicate—what words we use, what inflection we place upon them, the speed of our speech and how loud we say what we want to say. Do we say what we mean, or what we think someone wants to hear? Do we say what we want to hear? Do we say nothing?
Before we utter the words we cast through the air to be caught by another person, we must first determine the purpose of our communication. What is our goal? Are we communicating to create an impression? To be understood? To comfort ourselves? To ease a pain? To cause one?
Take for example a man and a woman in a dating relationship who are spending much of their free time together. They very much enjoy each other’s company, but the woman is beginning to feel she needs more time away from her partner. (Goal: more time alone) She does not say anything to him because she is concerned that saying something will hurt his feelings. However, her feelings build and after several weeks she vents her anger, telling him she cannot stand his clingy, needy behavior. What did she achieve? Well, she achieved venting her anger, which feels good for a moment, and he most likely did feel hurt, especially by the words she chose to use. What if she had taken a moment to sit down with him, and say, “ I feel like I need to spend more time by myself.” In this instance, she states her need, without any implication the problem lies with her partner. If he perceives that she means anything other than the words she said, it is his choice. Now, one can easily ask, what if her partner is way too clingy and needy? As stated above, the goal is to get more time alone. Will telling him he is clingy and needy accomplish that goal?
The purpose of using “I” messages is to adequately and accurately communicate our feelings. It is to let people know what is going on inside of us at that moment in time. It is about being aware of what the receiver of our message will hear.
Compare the statement; “I feel hurt by that” versus “You hurt me”. In the first sentence, you (meaning yourself) is the subject, and you are stating what you are feeling at the time. Your feelings are facts, and no one can tell you that you shouldn’t have a certain feeling (although they might try!). Therefore, “I feel hurt by that” is a statement of fact.
“You hurt me” is more of a subjective statement. You are letting the receiver know that something they did resulted in you being hurt in some way, but it leaves too much open to interpretation. This is important because you can never control how someone interprets what you say. For instance, are you trying to state a fact to the receiver or are you accusing them? Did the receiver hurt you, did their action hurt you, were you hurt physically or emotionally?
Examples of “I” Messages:
I feel angry when you make jokes about the way I dress.
I want to take five minutes to sit down and talk to you about something.
I need more time to think about what you just said.
Using “I” messages is not difficult, yet it is common for people to feel uncomfortable with trying to use them for some of the following reasons:
- Habit. We have to relearn how to phrase our thoughts.
- Emotion. The reason we are trying to learn to use “I” messages is to be able to communicate our emotions in a different way. It is a challenge for many people to communicate about emotionally laden topics.
- Doubt. If people are getting the gist of what we want to say, why do we have to put effort into phrasing our thoughts in “I” messages? We use “I” messages because we want the receiver to get an accurate picture of what is going on within us, without judgment and leaving little open to interpretation.
- Fear. We are resistant to using “I’ messages because of fear. A common fear many people have is not being normal. When we use “I” messages, we are saying what we think or feel about something that has occurred, but we are not assigning fault over what occurred. In reality, many times we are trying to assign fault. We want to establish that what the other person is doing is wrong, that any reasonable person would think it was wrong, and therefore we have a right to complain about it. Our fear that our feelings are not “normal”, or that we will be judged as not normal, leads us to begin building a case against the other person for our right to feel the way we do. If we truly accept for ourselves that feelings are facts, we will not feel so strongly about building a case to defend our feelings.
While simple in form, it can take some practice to get used to using “I” messages, however, the result of having clear communication with one’s partner, unencumbered by hurt feelings and resentments, makes the effort worthwhile.