Let's pretend you were supposed to meet your partner for a dinner party, but they're late, and once again neglected to send you a text to keep you updated. When they finally arrive, you erupt. "You're always late and never text me to let me know!" While these very well may be true statements, there's a better way to phrase your frustration to your partner.
Often therapists suggest simply switching your comments from ones that start with "you" to ones that begin with "I." For example, instead of saying, "You make me so annoyed when you're always late," you would say, "I feel annoyed and upset when I'm waiting on you and am kept in the dark about your whereabouts." This might sound like a lot of fuss over semantics, but it can ultimately make difficult conversations more effective.
Using an "I" statement is helpful in a few different ways, for the listener and the speaker, according to Vera Eck, MFT, an Imago relationship therapist in Los Angeles. "Using an I statement means someone is taking full responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and/or actions," Eck says. Instead of blaming, you very clearly emphasise your thoughts and feelings to the listener, she says.
Generally, people tend to be more receptive to hearing how you feel, than taking blame or criticism for something they allegedly did — which is how a "you" statement can come across. Which is to say, your partner could help that they were late. But they can't help that lateness makes you anxious. Once they hear that, they may be more able to empathise with you feeling anxiety than with you feeling generally pissed about the time.
In your daily convos with your partner, it's not always possible to pause, think about how to carefully word your frustration, and re-phrase it with an "I" statement. But it's a good idea to try, especially when you're addressing a big or persistent stressor in your relationship — like your partner's perpetual lateness. Launching into a "you" statement can trigger their fight or flight response, whereas an "I" statement keeps things safe, Eck says. "The most productive conversations are had when both people can remain calm and in their rational, pre-frontal cortex," she says. That's because people can actually hear and internalise feedback, rather than getting caught up feeling defensive.
For the times when you can't muster an "I feel" statement, it's equally important to remember the impact of your tone, says David Ludden, PhD, a psychology professor who focuses on the psychology of language. "I think that tone of voice carries much more weight that the actual words that are spoken," he says. "If you can’t express yourself in a neutral or friendly tone of voice, there’s no way the communication is going to be successful." That's not to say that sometimes you shouldn't be stern or sound angry when you need to, but that you should think about what you say and how you say it.
Also, don't think you can shroud an insult in an "I" statement, and that makes it okay. Eck says people can misuse "I" statements, with something like, "I feel like when YOU always forget to text me when you're running late, you are being really inconsiderate." In that case, the "I" is just opening the door for a "you" complaint. "The speaker thinks that technically they said an 'I' statement, when instead they used that phrase to deliver a criticism," she says.
If using "I" statements just doesn't come naturally to you — in the heat of the moment or when you're having a tough conversation — then you might want to focus on tone, and gently state your partner's behaviour, and how it makes you feel, Eck says. Or you can use the "you" format to display interest and curiosity in your partner's point of view. (For example: "What do you think about that? Tell me more about your experience.") And then if it still feels like you're speaking Pig Latin, try to remember that "no one else controls your emotions — only you do," Dr. Ludden says. In other words, when you say, "You made me angry," it's simply not true.