What Are 'I Feel' Statements?

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Misunderstandings in relationships happen to everyone. However, regularly feeling misunderstood can be a sign of a need to work on communication skills.

Changing how people communicate can improve relationships and help individuals feel understood. One way to accomplish this is through the use of "I feel" statements, also known as feeling statements, I-messages, or just I-statements.

This article discusses what "I feel" statements are, how they are used, and why they are beneficial in communication. It also covers how people can use these feeling statements and potential mistakes to watch for.

What Are 'I Feel' Statements?

'I feel' statements are a way of communicating the speaker's feelings or beliefs. Instead of focusing on the actions or behaviors of the listener, feelings statements focus on how those actions make the speaker feel. 

These feelings statements are a powerful communication tool. Used correctly, they can remove an accusatory tone in the speaker's statements and allow people to express their point without getting a defensive reaction.

'I feel' statements can be contrasted with 'you' statements, which are more confrontational and place the blame directly on the listener.

'You Statements'
  • "You never clean up after yourself."

  • "You didn't call me like you promised!"

  • "You don't even care."

'I' Statements
  • "I feel stressed out when the house is so disorganized."

  • "I feel worried when I don't know whether you made it home safely."

  • "I feel sad when it seems like my feelings are not taken seriously."

Benefits of I-Statements

The idea of "I statements" was introduced during the 1960s by psychologist Thomas Gordon as a way to help children learn to connect emotions with behaviors during play therapy. These messages can have a number of benefits during communication:

Greater Assertiveness

Feeling statements can be a way to express assertiveness without causing listeners to feel blamed, accused, defensive, or guilty. It allows the speaker to express control and ownership of their emotions without directly accusing the other person of being at fault.

More Effective Conflict Resolution

I-messages are frequently utilized as a way to resolve conflict without putting people on the defensive. By placing the attention primarily on the feelings and needs of the speaker, it focuses the conversation on solving a problem rather than assigning blame.

One reason "I feel" statements might help defuse conflict is a phenomenon known as the norm of reciprocity. People tend to feel a need to reciprocate, including in communication.

When one person is communicating in a way that is non-confrontational and emotion-focused, the listeners are more likely to match their own responses to that of the speaker.

More Constructive Feedback

I-messages can also be a helpful way to provide constructive feedback to other people. Rather than leading with criticism, it focuses the conversation on how the speaker feels about it. This can often help the person who is receiving the feedback feel less criticized and more open to making changes.

The use of I-messages is also more likely to evoke feelings of empathy, cooperation, and openness to negotiation in listeners.

How to Use Feeling Statements

I-messages can vary in terms of how they are formed and utilized, and they don't necessarily need to begin with the words, "I feel." While these messages can vary, there are three essential components of a feeling statement:

Stating Your Feeling

This refers to stating the speaker's real feelings only, and it starts with the word "I." I feel ______. When people talk about feelings, they often have a tendency to assign blame first while downplaying the feeling.

For instance, people often say, "You make me so mad," which typically causes a defensive reaction from the other person at the first word. When the other person is immediately on the defense, they are less likely to listen and respond with an open mind.

A feeling statement keeps the focus on the feeling of the speaker which is less likely to elicit a defensive reaction and more likely to promote effective communication.

Connecting the Feeling to an Issue

Once the feeling is stated, it should be connected to an issue or event. For example, a person might say, "I feel angry when I am alone and you are out with your friends."

Although there is some mention of the other person’s behavior, the focus continues to be on the uncomfortable feeling experienced by the speaker. Ideally, this allows the other person to concentrate on helping to alleviate the discomfort, rather than defending themselves.

Stating What You Want to Have Happen

Finally, a solution should be given. This might involve a person saying something like, "I feel angry when I am alone and you are out with your friends. I would like to be invited to be with you, even if you are with your friends."

This solution may not be a real option but does allow for discussion. The focus stays on the feeling, and the goal continues to be alleviating the uncomfortable feeling.

Recap

"I feel" statements should state how the speaker is feeling, the cause of that feeling, and a potential solution.

Examples of 'I Feel' Statements

It can be helpful to look at how feeling statements might be utilized in communication. Both Susan and Karen are experiencing the same situation and feeling, but Karen uses a feeling statement, while Susan does not.

As you look at the example, remember that feeling statements are often called "I statements" as the first word is "I" not "you."

  • Susan says: “You don’t let me say what I want to do.”
  • Karen says: “I feel frustrated when we talk about making plans and I don’t get to say what I want to do. I want us to both to have input.”

It is likely that Susan only got a defensive response. Perhaps the other person would start giving examples of how they do let her say what she wants to do, start complaining that they always do what she wants to do, or even complain back that she never asks what they want to do.

The use of "you language" opposed to "I language" makes it more likely that this conversation disintegrated into a full-blown argument, leaving no one feeling particularly good.

Karen, on the other hand, was more likely to receive a response that focused on reducing her frustration level. Perhaps her ideas were sought as well as the other person’s and together they made a plan. Together they focus on the present activity and their feelings instead of blaming one another.

Using feeling statements takes practice, and it may be hard to use them consistently, especially at first. People sometimes find feeling statements extremely difficult. However, everybody can learn to use these and will benefit from non-accusatory communication.

Impact of "I Feel" Statements

Feeling statements are often used in therapy and many mental health professionals encourage their use in everyday communication. Research also suggests that this approach can be helpful when communicating with others:

  • A 2018 study found that the use of "I" language was the most effective strategy to use during conflict. The results suggested that using this approach helped minimize the risk that a discussion would lead to further hostility.
  • Other researchers have found that couples that utilize "you" language during conflict discussions have less effective interactions.

Uses for "I Feel" Statements

Some settings where I-messages are frequently utilized include:

Marital Counseling

This technique is frequently used in couples therapy to help improve communication in romantic relationships. Couples who are in conflict often find themselves blaming one another for the problems they are facing.

By using "I feel" statements, couples can focus their communication on what they are feeling rather than assigning blame and making their arguments worse. This strategy can also help couples begin to build greater empathy for one another.

Family Therapy

Families are also prone to communication problems that can interfere with the family dynamic and lead to conflict within the family unit. By using feeling statements during family therapy, family members can begin to communicate with one another more effectively.

I-language may help individuals become more receptive to feedback. It also helps each person better understand how their own actions affect other members of the family.

Recap

Feeling statements can be helpful in both everyday communication as well as in therapeutic settings. Couples therapy and family therapy are two types of psychotherapy where people practice this form of interpersonal communication.

Potential Pitfalls

One common pitfall when using "I feel' statements is to use them as a way to express a judgment or assign blame to the other person. For example, a person might say something like, "I feel like you don't care." 

While this statement starts with an expression of how the speaker feels, it concludes with an accusation. This defeats the goal of using feeling statements.

Instead, speakers should keep the focus on their own emotions, how the issue is affecting them, and what solutions might help. For example, the speaker in the previous example might say, "I feel sad that I have to do this alone. It would really make me feel better if you could help me with this."

Summary

"I feel" statements communicate how a speaker feels to help minimize defensiveness and conflict in conversations. Using feeling statements can help people assert themselves while reducing hostility.

These I-statements should state how the speaker is feeling, connect it to an issue, and offer a possible solution. Research suggests that I-messages can improve communication, which is why they are often used in couples counseling, family therapy, and other therapeutic interventions.

A Word From Verywell

Learning how to use "I feel" statements can be an effective way to improve how you communicate with others, particularly if you are dealing with difficult conversations or conflict. While it can be a bit challenging at first, you may find that this approach becomes more natural over time.

While there is no guarantee that the other person will respond in a receptive way, using feeling statements can minimize the risk that the conversation will devolve into hostility and argumentativeness.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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