Dating / Marriage / Parenting / Relationships

How to share a concern without starting a verbal fist fight

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Okay. Now it’s your turn to talk. You have listened to their side of the problem and you have paraphrased what they have said (see the previous article on listening). Not only do you feel like you understand them, but they feel like you really understand them as well.

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But now that it is your turn to talk, you hesitate. You have a concern with that person, but you don’t know how to say it. You know they won’t be happy to hear it. Perhaps last time you brought up a concern with them, they got really mad and nothing was resolved. So how do you tell someone you don’t like what they are doing without offending them and causing a fight?

Well, there is actually a format that can help. It’s not 100% guaranteed (because a person could take offense at ANYTHING if they really wanted to), but I have found it to be very helpful. It’s called using I-statements instead of You-statements and many researchers have found that it helps couples in their relationships (1)(2).


I-statements focus on what you are feeling. You try to speak only for yourself. You don’t mind read. You don’t assume what the other person is thinking. You don’t say “You are probably thinking…” or “you did this because…” Although we like to assume the motives behind what our partner does, we really have no way of knowing why they do a certain thing. So you need to speak only for yourself. You also have to own your own feelings. Instead of saying “you made me feel this way…” you can say “I feel this way when you do this…”

Another key to I-statements is that you focus on the other person’s behavior, not their character or identity. You focus on what they did that was wrong or hurtful, instead of focusing on who they are. This will make more sense when we look at some examples below.

Here is a general format:

I feel ______ when you ______ because _______.

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Some Examples

Let’s say that you are mad because your partner left their clothes on the floor again. You could say:

“You are such a slob. You never pick up your clothes. Your mom did everything for you.”

Whew. That is pretty offensive. Do you see what you just did here? You labeled them “a slob” (a global attribution of their character or identity). You used a superlative statement with the use of “never” (superlatives like “never” and “always” are exaggerated words that are rarely true). And then you tried to assume the reason why they don’t pick up their clothes (because their mom always did it for them). When hit with the above statement, it is hard NOT to react in a defensive way. Let’s try to rephrase this sentence as an I-statement.

I feel frustrated when you don’t pick up your clothes because then it is one more thing that I have to do.”

(notice the general format outlined in bold).

See how this statement feels different? You are still stating your concern, but you are doing it in a way that is least offensive. Now, of course, you could always say this I-statement in a nasty, sarcastic way that still hurts a lot. So this format is not 100% guaranteed. But I have learned that if I can calm down and phrase my concerns in this way, it helps my relationships A LOT.

On occasion, I have also been on the receiving end of these I-statements. After my husband and I discussed this statement format, he approached me about something that he had a concern about. It was about a sensitive topic for me – something that I usually get REALLY mad and REALLY offended about. But when my husband used the I-statement format…I didn’t feel anger. I just felt like “Okay, you feel this way. I understand and I will try to be better. Thanks.” I was so surprised that I didn’t get mad like I usually do.

The 5:1 Rule

Now I am not saying that rephrasing all of your concerns into I-statements will suddenly change your marriage into a happy, fulfilling one. You have to limit the number of concerns you bring up with the number of good things you say to your partner (the 5:1 Rule – you need five positive interactions for every one negative interaction with your partner). But I think that using I-statements during tough issues can help a lot.

The General Principles

Let’s review the general principles here. Try not to attack people. Instead, calmly state your concern in a clear way. Try to focus on their actions, not their character or identity. Don’t use superlatives like “always” and “never”. Speak for yourself, don’t try to read their mind.

All of these things help to soften the startup of conflict. You don’t want to start a discussion by attacking the other person. If you can ease your way into a discussion and keep things calm, it is much better (3). Dr. Gottman has even found that most conversations end the way they start. So try to start soft.


(1) Haulweg, K., & Richter, D. (2010). Prevention of marital instability and distress. Results of an 11-year longitudinal follow-up study. Behavior Research and Therapy 48 (5). 377-383.

(2) Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

(3) Olsen, N. (2007). Emotion skills, problem-solving, and marital satisfaction: Investigating the mediating effect of emotion skills on the relationship between problem-solving skills and marital satisfaction. Dissertation Abstracts International, 67, 6072.

#maritalconflict #istatements

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