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Difficult Family Discussions, at Summer BBQs, Holidays or any day

by Nicole Urh, PsyD, Fellow of the Hope Project and Charis Institute

We've all been there. The family is together for a summer BBQ, a holiday, or any day and everyone is enjoying dinner, and suddenly, someone at the table asks The Question. Every family has a different Question, but I bet you can think of your family’s. For some, it’s “who did you vote for?” For others, it might be “When are you going to bring a nice man home?” Other Questions come in the form of “So, what major did Emily pick?” “When are you going to make me a grandparent?” or “Have you been putting on weight?” For you, dear reader, it may be none of these questions, but I bet a topic of conversation or a Question popped into your mind as you read through my examples. What is that one topic that makes you feel uncomfortable that always comes up around the holidays?

More importantly, what can we do to manage those conversations?

The thing I want to talk about today is called an “I” statement. It’s a different way of talking that we don’t normally use, but it can make a world of difference. It can especially change the way that you have difficult or emotionally intense conversations.

What is an “I” Statement?

An “I” statement is a manner of talking in which you only speak from your own point of view. Some people think of it as the opposite of a “you” statement. The best way to illustrate something like this is to give an example of common “you” statements and ways to transform them into “I” statements.

You statement: You always make me feel like dirt.

I statement: Right now, I feel like dirt because of the way you’re talking to me.

You statement: You never do the dishes.

I statement: I would really appreciate some help with the dishes. Sometimes it feels like I am the only one doing the dishes.

You statement: You keep asking me about when I’m going to have babies. It’s the worst and you’re being a jerk.

I statement: It makes me uncomfortable when you keep bringing up the topic of when I’m going to have babies.

Why do “I” Statements Work?

An “I” statement is a magic weapon because it helps keep you from adding fuel to the fire of a difficult conversation. If you are having a conversation that always ends in a fight, your conversation partner might be braced for a fight. You may even find that you yourself are braced for a fight. When two people are so prepared to be defensive, it is important to remember this truth: no one likes to be told about themselves. Think about the last time someone accused you of being hurtful, or thoughtless, or cruel or a jerk. I know that when I am in such situations, my automatic response is to think “wait, okay, but you don’t understand where I was coming from. If you just heard my side of things, you would see why I said that. You don’t understand what I am feeling.”

This is a very common reaction for others to have. This is why “you” statements add to the fire of a difficult conversation. The conversation was already difficult, and now your conversation partner is trying to explain their side of the story to you. While they are so busy trying to communicate why they did what they did, they might not be able to hear what you are trying to say.

Think about the last time you told someone a statement like, “you always do this.” What that sentence is really saying is, “I feel hurt by the fact that you keep bringing this up, and I am worried that you won’t stop.” Your conversation partner might not be able to hear that message though if they are too busy trying to explain why they always do this or remind you of the times where that wasn’t the case.

Speaking from your own perspective disarms that trap. It gives your conversation partner space to put down their defenses and hear what you are trying to say. Instead of going on the attack with a “you” statement, an “I” statement requires the speaker to be vulnerable and open about what they are feeling. This allows your partner to avoid the usual pattern of going on the defensive, adding fuel to the fire, and continuing down the usual path of these difficult conversations.

What Makes an “I” Statement?

An “I” statement speaks only from your own point of view. It never assumes what the other person might be thinking and feeling. Instead, you take a moment of introspection to think about how a difficult conversation is making you feel. If someone is making you feel hurt, try expressing that hurt rather than calling them a name.

An additional rule of “I” statements is that you are not allowed to simply add the phrase “I feel” to the front of a “you” statement. This can be very tempting at first. Instead of saying “You always do this,” some people might change it to “I feel like you’re always doing this.” In this situation, you are still telling the other person about themselves. Instead, try changing this statement to something like, “when the family is visiting, sometimes I feel like I’m the one responsible for keeping everyone happy.”

Remember not to tell the other person what they are thinking and feeling. By using an “I” statement and speaking only from your own experience and perspective, you do not require your conversation partner to defend themselves. Instead, you are inviting them to see how this difficult conversation is making you feel.

Example:

Person A: Wow, I haven’t seen you in forever. You must be working hard if you don’t even have time to visit your family.

Person B: You don’t know what I do in my daily life. I am working to provide for my family, and you have never understood that. You’re always bringing this up, and I wish you would stop.

In this situation, Person B was clearly hurt and offended by what Person A said, and it sounds like the conversation was one that they had had several times before. Person B was hurt, and so they lashed out in defense of themselves. Unfortunately, Person B used several “you” statements in defending themselves. Rather than hearing the hurt that they have caused Person B, Person A is likely to hurt as well. They may be thinking how they want to argue against these accusations or be so hurt that they lash out in response. There is another way to handle this conversation.

Person A: Wow, I haven’t seen you in forever. You must be working hard if you don’t even have time to visit your family.

Person B: It really makes me feel unwelcome to hear that. I care a lot about providing for my family, and this conversation makes me feel like that work has less value.

Now we’re in a completely different conversation! Suddenly, Person A has a lot more insight into why Person B might be defensive. And, because Person B did not try to tell Person A about what they might be thinking and feeling, they can dedicate all their brainpower to hearing what Person B has to say, rather than thinking about ways to defend themselves.

A Final Thought

Changing the way that you respond to emotional or difficult conversations is a difficult process. And talking with “I” statements can be difficult at first. Please have patience with yourself and keep working on it. The more you work on changing the way that you speak, the more natural and the easier it becomes.

Just remember

  1. Speak from your own point of view.

  2. Do not tell your conversation partner what they might be thinking or feeling.

  3. Do not just add “I feel” to the front of a “you” statement.

So, the next time a family member tries to open up a full can of worms with you, look at them and say, “Having conversations like this tends to make me angry and frustrated. I want to have a good time with the family today, so I am not going to engage in conversations like this.”

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