Lately, I find myself getting frustrated and snapping at my husband when he doesn’t listen to me or follow up with things I ask him to do; he gets defensive and says I’m too critical. Any advice?
You’re not alone. Communication is the key to a healthy relationship — and yet, you’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to effectively express themselves, especially if they grew up in homes where self-expression wasn’t encouraged or the person with the loudest voice always won.
Fortunately, communication is a skill that can be learned, even as an adult. But like most skills, it takes know-how and practice to get the hang of it. Here are some simple ways to use an “I statement” to improve your chances that what you have to say won’t fall on deaf ears.
1. Identify the upsetting behavior
The No. 1 mistake people make is attacking a person’s character (“you’re so lazy”) or lobbing accusations (“you don’t care”) instead of pointing out the specific offending behavior. Not only do such statements put people on the defensive by suggesting that something is wrong with them, but they don’t give the person an opportunity to change.
Try expressing yourself by starting like this:“When you show up late to dinner and don’t call ahead …”
2. Identify the feeling
This may sound simple, but many people can’t distinguish thoughts from feelings. So often, when I ask clients how they feel about someone’s behavior, they say things like, “I feel that he’s lazy,” or “I feel that he’s selfish.” These are judgments that don’t help the other person understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of their actions. If you’re not sure about what you’re feeling, you can always focus on the five basic emotions: mad, sad, bad, glad and afraid. Like the primary colors, all emotions are an extension or distillation of these fundamental feeling states.
Once you’ve identified the feeling, add the emotion to your sentence:“When you show up late to dinner and don’t call ahead, I feel mad.”
3. Identify and take ownership of your interpretation of the behavior
This keeps your mind open to the possibility that you may be wrong, which can be a bit tricky because so often we make wrong assumptions about what people’s behavior means instead of asking them directly. Such assumptions are usually projections based on fears and old stories from the past. When you own your interpretation, you take responsibility for your reactions, which gives your listener room to stop and reflect on where you’re coming from.
Here’s how you might apply this step to our example:“When you’re late, I get sad and mad. The story I tell myself, which may or may not be true, is that you don’t care about my needs or my time [just like my mother did when she came late to pick me up at school].”
4. Make a request for the future
This conveys your faith that change is possible and further clarifies your wishes:“When you come late to dinner, I feel mad. The story I tell myself is that you don’t care about my time or want to be with me. In the future, I would like you to please be on time.”
While “I statements” may seem contrived, children raised in families that model goodcommunication skills learn to express themselves, more or less, in this manner. So don’tget discouraged if practicing your new tools feels unnatural at first. The more you usethem, the more natural they will become.
And finally, it’s important to understand that while using “I statements” improves yourchances of being heard, it does not guarantee that the other person will change or respondthe way you hope. But at least you can take comfort knowing you did the best you could.
Kim Schneiderman’s book “Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframeand Transform Your Life,” is due to bepublished in the spring. Email Kim yourquestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.