Constructive Conflict: Are You An ‘I’ Statement Or A ‘You’ Statement Person?

To what extent do you engage in constructive conflict?
Think about the last time you got annoyed or frustrated with someone…

What are the odds that silently or perhaps even aloud, your response was to along the lines of ‘You are unreliable’ or ‘You shouldn’t do x’ . So often when we are annoyed or frustrated with someone, our immediate response is to focus on them. We get into blame and labelling mode and use what is termed a ‘You’ statement, i.e. ‘You are..’.

A more effective way, however, of approaching this situation is to use what are termed ‘I’ statements, a concept which originated from the work of Dr Thomas Gordon, a cornerstone of his ‘Leader Effectiveness’ and ‘Parent Effectiveness’ programmes.

An ‘I’ statement simply

  • describes (rather than evaluates) the behaviour,
  • how this has impacted on you (or relevant situation) and
  • what it is you would need the from other person to sort it out.

‘You are unreliable’ might therefore be framed as ‘When you didn’t complete the work as you promised, I couldn’t finish my piece and the client was unhappy with our service.

But, I hear you say…shouldn’t we be laying it on the line for people if they have messed up and anyhow, this is just adding a bit of icing sugar, talking around the real problem and not facing hard truths.

Well, no, shifting from a ‘You’ to and ‘I’ focus in how you frame and express a concern is not just a question of semantics – swapping around the pronouns a bit. Rather it fosters a fundamental shift in how you think about and approach a situation that’s bothering you.

Here’s why it works so much better:

  • ‘You statements’ often tend to generalise and characterise a behaviour or set of behaviours so the person listening doesn’t have any real clarity on what it is exactly they have done that doesn’t work. Compare ‘you are incompetent’ to ‘I get frustrated when I have to ask you a number of times to redo the task. I need you to …’
  • ‘You’ statements tend to put the listener on a much more defensive footing than an ‘I’ statement. So rather than being open to a change that you might request from them, you have actually increased their resistance.
  • ‘You’ statements shift the listener’s focus onto negativity and anger towards you the speaker rather than helping them understand clearly what’s required.
  • For the speaker, by choosing an ‘I’ statement, you get to stay in your ‘own head’. This means you are putting energy into something you have influence over – your own needs and how best to have them met. Contrast this to the frustration of focusing outward on something you have less influence and control on – someone else’s behaviour.
  • Sometimes you cannot change the other person – you either don’t have the influence or they are not for changing, for whatever reason. So rather than getting frustrated at them, you can get clear on your own key needs and find another route to meet them.
  • And finally, a ‘You statement’ lets the speaker completely off the hook. It’s so much easier to simply label and dismiss the other person rather than considering perhaps how I might have contributed. Easier yes, but ultimately, gives no learning and probably no change for either you or them.