Pointing Fingers


Why don’t you ever listen?

You just don’t understand me!

Why are you always late?

You must study or you won’t score well

You are of no help at all!

You are so insensitive, you just don’t care, you don’t love me. 

Are these statements you have faced at one time or the other? How did it make you feel? How did you respond to it? Did it make you want to listen and cooperate? Or did it feel like an accusation?

These are called ‘You statements’ and are the typical way we communicate. We tell the person what he did or didn’t do, whether it was right or wrong or what he should or shouldn’t be doing. Such statements, more often than not sound like accusations and blame. It conveys judgment. No one likes being judged and hence it closes down communication lines. It puts the person on the defense, making him unable and unwilling to be open to what you have to say and truly listen.

Such statements are most common, and also the most harmful in relationships marred with conflict. When your teenaged son returns home late, telling him– “you are so irresponsible, you scared me to death” can only evoke a rebellious or at most an indifferent attitude. You cannot expect him to feel sorry, when he is busy defending his human rights or ignoring you like wallpaper. It will only enhance the negativity and escalate the tension. While positive communication can be a life saver in conflict situations, negative communication can be the cause of shipwreck.

Research has shown that accusatory ‘you’-statements evoked greater anger and a greater inclination for antagonistic response in adolescents than assertive ‘I’ statements.

Flip the situation: Use simple ‘I’ statements’ in place of ‘you’ statements

I feel unheard, can we talk?

I feel like I’m not being understood and its making me feel upset.

I feel anxious when you don’t come on time/ I find it difficult to complete work as it gets delayed without you

I am worried about your scores and I would be happy to see you successful. Maybe we can work at improving study habits

I feel overworked and would appreciate some extra help

I am feeling unloved and I feel the need to be taken care of more

How did reading these statements feel? Did it evoke similar negativity as the ‘You’ sentences did? When are you more likely to cooperate?

‘I’ Statements have Multiple Benefits

  •  ‘I’ statements make the speaker take responsibility for his emotions, acknowledging and understanding them better. Also, we can really know only what WE are feeling. When we talk about anyone else’s feelings, thoughts or behaviors like ‘you don’t love me’ or ‘you don’t understand’ – it’s all just an assumption. That is our perspective of the situation while that person’s reality may be completely different. So let’s not assume here, let only talk of only what we really know – our own selves.
  • When we get in touch with our emotions and share them, we create a bridge for the opposite person also to get in touch with how we’re feeling. This facilitates empathy and helps them understand us better, much better. It makes one feel like you’re opening up to him, nudging him to be there for you.
  • When you focus on what you are feeling, rather than on your opinion on the matter (as is conveyed through a ‘You’ statement), it is non-threatening and inoffensive. Hence it doesn’t make the person jump to his defense with all shields up and instead allows him to drop his guard. So always identify and say what you are feeling about the situation, instead of what the other person is doing.

One thing to be alert about though are disguised statements. Statements like “ I feel that…” or I feel like…” as they are just hidden “You” statements – “I feel that you are getting stubborn” or “I feel like you don’t spend any time with me”. These have the same accusatory effect and do not help.

To know which statement is truly an ‘I’ statement, look out for what is its intended effect. If its effect is communication of feelings and not accusation, you are on the right track!

Post contributed by: Mahima Gupta (Psychologist, Inner Space, 2010-2012)

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[…] from work, ‘I feel I must help when I see mom-in-law cook’, and so on. Clearly expressing what you think and feel about yourself is a much healthier way of communicating than focusing on the opposite […]

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The Art of Listening