It’s true: people who begin every sentence with “I” tend to be boring and self-centered, interested only in themselves. But there’s one area of communication where sentences are best begun with that one-letter word—the point where you have to explain to someone else that his or her behavior annoys you. The exchange above started with “You,” and it didn’t get very far.
Why is it inadvisable to open a complaint with “You”? Because:
- It sounds accusatory, putting the other person instantly on the defensive—and defensiveness automatically kills any desire to listen and consider.
- It launches the complainant into attack mode, reflexively drawing more fire after it.
- By concentrating full fire on an outside target, it encourages the complainant in thinking, “No fault of mine is involved; it’s all your responsibility to change.”
The result: two people more interested in “winning” than in mutual satisfaction, and the initial problem either forgotten or made worse.
Conversely, an “I” statement—“I feel hurt when … I would be happier if …”—acknowledges that your own personal feelings are involved, which equals an unspoken implication that “Perhaps I’m being unreasonable, and I would appreciate it if you’d help me find the way to a mutually acceptable solution.” If the other person places any value on the relationship, the natural response is to cooperate.
There are a few caveats:
- Watch your tone of voice. An “I” statement spoken in obvious anger is hardly better than a “You” statement.
- Don’t try to disguise a “You” statement as an “I” statement. “I think that” is not adequate qualification if you continue with “… you always do this or that wrong.”
- Never say “never”—or “always,” for that matter. That’s in the category of throwing mud on the other person’s entire character.
- Be especially careful when confronting those you have authority over. With someone you could just order to “stop it or you’re in serious trouble,” it’s easy to let that implication slip into whatever words you use. Cooperation coupled with a bitter attitude is unlikely to last long; you want the other party to feel that you value him or her as a human being with the intelligence and empathy to want to cooperate.
|“YOU” STATEMENT (INEFFECTIVE)||“I” STATEMENT (EFFECTIVE)|
|You pick up those toys this minute!||I would appreciate it if those toys were picked up before dinner.|
|You’re always late. You have absolutely no consideration for my feelings.||I feel annoyed and insignificant when I have to wait twenty minutes past the time we agreed on.|
|You are so sloppy!||I would really be pleased if you would comb your hair and tuck in your shirt before joining us for dinner.|
|You just don’t listen.||I feel that the things which matter to me don’t matter as much to you; is there anything I can do to communicate my needs better?|