Shortly after bipolar disorder invaded our home in 1999, a series of marriage counselors encouraged me to learn to speak in “I” statements. That was the advice I got from NAMI’s 12-week Family-to-Family course, too.
My initial reaction was, “Great, not only am I a lousy husband, but now I can’t even speak properly!” We had had 15 years of connubial bliss, relatively speaking, before the fireworks started, and I wasn’t doing anything different, so how could this inability to communicate suddenly be my fault?! In short, I was very resistant to the idea.
Several years later (yes, I am that stubborn), I decided to give it a try. Cecie, my wife, and I were starting a new project after having sworn two years earlier to never ever try to work together on a book project again. (This was a great opportunity, and we really needed the money.)
The first day began as expected. Cecie was getting frustrated trying to do something on the computer, and her frustration was evident in the tone and volume of her sighs. I felt that she was blaming me for the fact that the computer wouldn’t cooperate, and I could feel my anger rising. I wanted to say, “Stop blaming me for everything that goes wrong with your computer!”
Instead, I used an “I” statement. In my best attempt at expressing myself in a monotone voice, I said, “Whenever I hear sighs of frustration, I start to get nervous and angry and want to yell at you.” Then I waited for the rebuttal, but this time, there wasn’t one. We discussed how our emotions tend to feed off of one another’s and strategies for working together in ways that wouldn’t make us want to kill each other. We made it through the day without a total blowout.
Since then, we have worked on several projects together with little conflict, although we often have to remind ourselves to de-escalate and disengage when things start to heat up. I also have had to learn not to try to do something else while I’m helping her; I have to devote my full attention to whatever issue she’s having a problem with and then get back to what I was doing.
I even started using “I” statements outside of the family setting. The other day I was on the phone with a tech support person who said that she needed login information for a website I was working on in order to help me. I was pretty sure that she could resolve the issue I was having without gaining access to my website. I said, “I really don’t like to give out that information.”
She replied, “You what?!” She sounded insulted that I didn’t trust her or angry that I was refusing to give her information that would empower her to resolve the issue.
Normally, I would have said something like, “C’mon, you can resolve this issue without my login information!” Instead, I said, “I’m paranoid about giving out my username and password.”
I could hear the tone of her voice change immediately in her response, “Okay, we’ll see if we can help you without that information.” And she did. She found the cause of the problem and provided instructions on how to fix it.
“I” statements really do help to defuse tense situations. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, you have the perfect opportunity to take “I” statements for a test drive with family members. Give them a try and let me know whether they work for you.
Happy guy photo available from Shutterstock
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Best of Our Blogs: November 23, 2012 | World of Psychology (November 23, 2012)
Last reviewed: 20 Nov 2012