Conflict Resolution: I Statements

Oh, conflict resolution. Every Midwesterner's favorite subject. It's really not that scary, but our tendencies to avoid feelings mixed with a preference for passive aggressive communication, makes conflict so much more complicated than it needs to be. I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, so I figured I'd start an open-ended series on some ways to make resolving conflict more bearable. 

Today we'll talk about "I Statements" by first addressing two of the main reasons people avoid conflict. The first is that they are worried about the conversation escalating into an argument. In fact, many people think that "conflict resolution" and "argument" are synonyms. This is especially true if you grew up in a family that was (to put it gently) loud. The second reason is the worry that the person they are talking with will just walk away or not say anything at all. This is especially true if you grew up in a family that was concerningly silent or absent. 

The root cause of these conversations escalating into arguments or people walking away is typically defensiveness. Defensiveness is a "walls up" reaction to a perceived personal attack. When we get defensive, we shut down and stop listening to what the other person is saying. We have suddenly become internally-focused and are now putting our energy into either returning the attack or leaving the situation as quickly as possible. Both are self-preservation techniques that unfortunately make having a productive conversation really difficult.

One of the best strategies to avoid defensiveness is to use "I Statements." I Statements are just as they sound- starting most statements in a conflict resolution conversation with "I." "I felt like you didn't care." "I saw it happen this way." "I thought this is what you meant." Entrenched within these simple statements is an underlying assumption that there is more than one way to look at the situation or event that is causing conflict. I Statements imply that there's a possibility that our perception and understanding of the situation is inaccurate. They open a door to a space in which two people can experience the same situation, but have very different ideas of what happened. I Statements invite conversation, and ask that the other person tell their side of the story. 

I Statements are the very opposite of "You Statements." You don't care." "You always do this." "You are wrong." Those You Statements can invoke from us a strong emotional response that puts us into a battle of "proving" something to the other person. When we are trying to prove something, we will ignore all evidence that does not find consonance with our point. Like a very excellent lawyer, we gather all our data and focus on loudly proclaiming why our side is right and your side is wrong. I Statements, however, are very difficult to argue with because they don't attack, they explain a perception. They don't assume that they are the experts on the other party's mental state or motivation and they don't bring judgement. I Statements allow us to calmly discuss how your perception and my perception might be different. Here, conflict becomes less about "winning" and more about understanding. 

You Statements can also have the opposite effect. Instead of bringing people into a place of trying to prove something, they can actually bring about feelings of shame and helplessness. This is where we'd typically see the response of shutting down or walking away. When we make You Statements, we may (accidentally or unfortunately purposely) be saying the very things that our partner falsely believes about him or herself. "You're a bad dad." "You are irresponsible." "You are not good enough." By keeping the focus on I Statements, we show respect and care and avoid digging our partners deeper into a hole of shame and self-hatred. Here, conflict becomes less about condemning and more about partners with mutual admiration for each other, working towards greater harmony.