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Talking About Feelings: The Antidote to Mind Reading

4 minute read

If you’ve read my previous article then you’ll know that mind reading is very common in relationships and can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings. This week’s article is about an alternative way of communicating that helps you and your partner understand each other and avoid the perils of mind reading. When each side understands the other, the level of hurt, fear and anger goes down, and solutions can often be reached.

So here’s the alternative, in the simplest nutshell possible: Tell your partner how you’re feeling, and ask them to talk about how they’re feeling. And the way to start is to use I-Statements.

Most of us start our fights with You-Statements:

“This is the third time this week you’ve kept me waiting. YOU are so inconsiderate and selfish.”

“YOU were flirting again at that party. YOU always do that.”

“YOU never help with the kids. YOU’RE just lazy.”

“YOU don’t care that I hate my job. YOU never listen to the problems I have there.”

It’s not hard to see how these would lead to a defensive reaction from the partner and a rapidly escalating fight. That’s because each of these You-Statements is an attack on the character or behavior of the partner. And no matter how justified we feel our attack on our partner to be, they rarely agree with our justification, and will leap to their own defense. They will challenge our interpretation of the behavior (“I wasn’t flirting, I was just being friendly”), the facts of the situation (“I put the kids to bed last night, how can you say I never help?”), the morality of our accusation (“I work so hard, I barely have any time to myself at all, and now you’re angry at me for being a bit late?”) and our own behavior (“You never listen to my problems, so why should I listen to yours?”)

A You-Statement gives lots of opportunities for our partner to contradict us and engage in a fight. But an I-Statement has a very different impact. For example:

“When you were late today, I felt hurt.”

“When I saw you talking to that man, I felt jealous.”

“When you were looking at your phone as I was trying to get the children ready, I felt angry.”

“When you walked away into the bedroom as I was talking about the problems at work, I felt really alone and frustrated.”

What is there in these I-Statements that our partner can challenge? They could, in theory, challenge the fact of the situation and deny they were late, or talking to a man, or looking at the phone or walking into the bedroom. But most people won’t deny a simple reality like this.

They could also challenge our feelings. “You shouldn’t feel hurt/jealous/angry/alone/frustrated.” That can spark a debate over whether we’re entitled to feel the way we do — in other words, an attempt to place blame. It’s important to sidestep that debate, because feelings are not right or wrong: they just are. Here’s an example of how to do that:

Husband: When I saw you talking to that man, I felt jealous.

Wife: You shouldn’t feel jealous. I was just being friendly. Do you want me to be rude to every man who talks to me?

Husband: I know, but that’s just the way I felt, jealous. I felt really bad when I saw you talking to him.

The husband’s response lowers the temperature of the argument. He’s not telling his wife that she’s a flirt, or that she was deliberately trying to upset him, or that her behavior was in any way wrong. He was simply telling her how he felt when he observed her behavior.

The key advantage of I-Statements is that they communicate our feeling to our partner with a minimum of criticism. And when our partner doesn’t feel criticized, it’s much more likely that they’ll respond positively, both in the moment, and in the future.

When we first start using I-Statements (especially if we’ve been engaged in You-Statement fights for a long time) our partners will often do their best to get us to change back. Sometimes they’ll ignore what we said, acting as if we were engaging in the old style of communicating. For example:

Girlfriend: “When you came late today, I felt hurt.”

Boyfriend: “Don’t you understand that I have a very important job, and sometimes things happen that mean I’m going to be late? Why is this such a big deal? Anyway, it was only ten minutes.”

Girlfriend: “I understand all that. But I can’t help it, I just felt hurt. I’m not saying you’re right or wrong, I’m just letting you know how I felt.”

I-Statements are a very powerful way of improving communication between partners, particularly if both are making an effort to use them. (Hint: show this article to your partner!) However, like anything else in human psychology, they’re not a panacea, and they’re not easy to do. So a couple of things to note:

Don't disguise a You-Statement as an I-Statement

“When you were rude to me, I felt hurt” looks like an I-Statement but clearly has an accusation in it (You were rude).

“When you said that I felt that you were mean” is also an accusation (You were mean).

Too many people deliver a You-Statement in the sheep’s clothing of an I-Statement. Their partner responds negatively of course, and they decide that I-Statements just don’t work for them.

Do adhere to a fixed format

I-Statements should look like this: “When you did (action), I felt (emotion).”

The action word or phrase is a simple description of your partner’s behavior. It’s not an interpretation or a judgement. So, words like rude, angry, dismissive, impatient, mean, silly or lazy have no place in an I-Statement. Instead, use facts. And the emotion word should be just that — how you felt, not how you felt about your partner.

Here are some examples:

“When you turned away as I was talking, I felt ignored.”

“When you said goodbye without hugging me, I felt hurt.”

“When you interrupted me I felt angry.”

“When you left dishes in the sink, I felt unimportant.”

If this doesn’t work….

When there’s a great deal of conflict in a relationship, feelings become so raw, hurt and angry that using I-Statements to fix things is like trying to hold back the ocean with a fork. I-Statements will be part of a solution, but it’s likely that professional help will be required to deal with the source of the conflict and to help rebuild trust and intimacy.


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