Monday, February 22, 2010


"Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life." ~ Romans 14:19

"Speaking the truth in love..." ~ Ephesians 4:15

Imagine that you are at a community meeting to discuss whether to build a new school or remodel the old one. You have just found the courage to stand and speak a word in favor of saving the old school, explaining your reasoning. A neighbor sitting nearby stands and says, "You're crazy! You don't know what you're talking about! You just want the bricks to come crashing down on our kids’ heads!” How would you feel? What would your emotional state of mind be like? How would you feel about your neighbor at that moment? Now imagine the same scene. This time, following your speech, your neighbor stands and says, "I disagree; here's how I see it . . ." and goes on to explain his point-of-view.

In the first instance, the neighbor was labeling you, challenging your intelligence, and – most egregiously – taking the liberty of describing your position in words you had not chosen.  In the second, he was expressing an opinion of his own. In the first example the neighbor was almost picking a fight with you personally; in the second he was participating in the general debate and conversation. Even though it may never be comfortable to have someone disagree with you publicly, the anxiety level surrounding the second example is much lower than that generated by the first. It is much more "civilized."

In the first example, above, the neighbor replied with a "you" statement; in the second, he used an "I" statement.  Your reaction to the accusation of "You're crazy…" would likely be either to sit down in red-faced anger and embarrassment, or to respond with "Oh, yeah?..." and jump into the verbal fight. (In addition, you might be much more timid in the future about speaking your mind.) The "you" statement almost automatically invites argument. The "I" statement invites dialogue.

Here's another way to look at it: If I say to you, "You're wrong," (or "you're stupid," or any other "you" statement) you can (and probably should) argue with me, because not only do you not think that you're wrong – your intellect and grasp of the facts are also being challenged. If, however, I say, "I disagree," you might debate the facts with me, but you can't argue with that statement; it would be absurd for you to say, "No you don't disagree with me!" (I've come to appreciate "I disagree" as one of the most useful I statements. As noted above, it's a good one to use for civilized debate; it also has the effect of being surprisingly disarming when you're accosted by someone who's actually looking to start an argument.)

The you/I dynamic is a very important idea in family communication. "You" statements, especially accusatory ones, almost always raise the level of anxiety and lead to hurt feelings or a fight. Accusatory "you" statements say, "I don't care what you think about you. I am standing in judgment of you and here's what I have decided about you;" they are based on the power differential between parent and child and have about them a decisive "case-closed" feeling. "I" statements, on the other hand, say, "let's talk;" they contain the inviting sense of "what do you think?"

The "I" statement is an example of a technique that can be learned and practiced. In a situation of rising anger, for example, a parent can stop herself from saying "You're just lazy!" and instead say, "I'm angry because you went to the movies without making your bed!" The child can argue about being lazy; the child can't argue about whether or not mom is angry (or if the bed is made!). As with other techniques, this one becomes more natural with use.

I am grateful to the late renowned child psychologist Haim Ginott for his practical suggestions regarding this kind of communication between parents and children. One of Dr. Ginott's particularly novel and helpful insights is that parents may wish to be cautious in the use of "you" statements even when communicating praise. Ginnott points out that to praise a five-year-old’s drawing by saying, "You are a great artist!" may lay a heavier burden of artistic achievement on the child's image of herself than she is able to accept, and – once again – the "you" statement invites argument. ("I am not a great artist!”) On the other hand, a statement such as, "I like this drawing!" expresses how the adult feels, and is not open to argument. The child may feel how she wishes about her drawing, but she also knows how someone else feels about it. And, in the case of this example, she can take pride in the fact that an adult likes her drawing without taking on the burden of being a "great artist."

As with other techniques, it is easy to parody this one. As a friend once put it, “The ‘you statement’ is ‘You’re a jerk.’ The ‘I statement’ is ‘I think you’re a jerk.’” Yuk, yuk. Still, I’m happy to recommend this simple approach to healthy communication. It works.

(This is the last in a series on healthy communication. For a general introduction to the series, see this post.)

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I disagree.