Start this lesson with a brief instructional period on the difference between I- and you-statements. Use the slide deck as an optional resource to guide this lesson and reinforce main ideas. Explain that you-statements are phrases that begin with the pronoun “you” and imply that the other person is responsible for something. Let students know that these statements often push blame on the other person and accuse them of being responsible for their thoughts and emotions. Instead of inspiring action, empathy, and change, you-statements often make the person feel defensive and targeted.
Ask students to describe how they would feel and what their automatic response would be if their mom said, “You are such as slob. You always expect me to clean up after you,” or if their best friend said “You are so selfish. You just think that the world revolves around you.” Students will likely identify very intense, negative feelings, like shame or despair, and they might notice a visceral, physiological response arise as a result of simply thinking about these scenarios.
Conclude by telling students that you-statements are similar to pointing a finger and yelling “they started it”. Then, acknowledge that, although these examples focused on negative scenarios, it can also be incredibly dangerous for students to think of other people as being responsible for their positive thoughts and feelings.
In partners, ask students to take a couple of minutes to discuss why this might be, before discussing this as a class. Hopefully, students will be able to arrive at the conclusion that it’s important to take personal responsibility for their emotions regardless of whether they are positive or negative. Failing to take responsibility means that their emotions are dictated by external circumstances and disregards the impact of attitude and mindset.
Now, explain the power of I-statements by sharing that I-statements force students to take responsibility for what they are thinking and feeling. Instead of punishing or blaming the other person, I-statements are a way for students to assertively communicate challenges or problems with the situation at hand, while still holding themselves accountable for their response to the situation.
Ask students to reconsider how they would feel and respond to their mom if she said, “I feel disrespected and taken for granted when you leave your clothes on the floor because I thought I had communicated how important it was for me that you put them in the laundry basket”. Or, ask students how their best friend’s argument might make them feel if it sounded more like this: “I feel hurt and small when you always cancel our plans because I think our friendship is not important to you.”
Both of these statements dramatically change the mood of the conversation. Students may identify feeling more empathetic, understanding, and motivated to change in response to these I-statements. Ask several students to share their thoughts about why these statements make them feel differently.
At this point, teach students about the three parts of I-statements (“I feel…”, “When… because…”, “I need”), which were explained in the READY section and mention that these three parts of I-statements are foundational to effective communication and conflict management.
The I-statement Framework explanation is available in the downloads section and includes examples of “When...” prompts that you will need for the next activity
Then, spend the next 8-10 minutes practicing the I-statement framework for effective communication. This can be done in any of the following three ways:
- For a more individual experience, ask students to pair up and give each pair of students a copy of the “when” prompts. For each prompt, or for their own situations, students should take turns identifying an appropriate “I feel” and “I need” statement. Students can use the same or different “when” prompts as their partners to help them recognize that different people can feel differently and need different things in the same situation.
- Arrange students in a large circle and, in a go-around fashion, have every student craft an I-statement, using the three part framework. Use the “when” prompts to provide each student with a situation, or let students create their own situation. You can choose to give each student a new prompt or repeat prompts to help students understand that different people may feel and need different things in the same situation.
- Arrange students in a large circle and, in a go-around fashion, have each student contribute one part of the statement so that it takes three students to complete the full I-statement. In this case, the first student identifies how they feel, the second student adds when they would feel this way, and the third student says what they would need (“I need”) given the circumstance and the way they are feeling. This collaborative teaching style can be a great way for students to practice active listening skills and challenges them to remain more engaged in the activity.
Regardless of how you choose to lead the activity, wrap it up with an 6-8-minute discussion that touches on any of the following prompts:
- Is it possible for different people to respond differently to the same situation (i.e. different “I feel” and “I need” statements for the same “When” prompt)? Why might this be? What factors contribute to this differing response?
- Is it possible for a single person to respond differently to the same situation at different times or in different environments? What factors might contribute to this differing response?
- What is the significance of each part of the statement?
- Why is it important to recognize, understand and label the specific emotion you are feeling (“I feel”)?
- Why is it important to identify the event, behaviour or situation in question (“when”)?
- Why is it important to clearly indicate what needs to be done to address the situation or what you need from others (“I need”)?
- If you were on the receiving end of an I-statement, how might you respond?
- What might be hard about using this framework in the moment? How can you reduce those barriers and set yourself up for success?
- Would it be valuable to share this framework with your family and friends to improve communication skills? How might better communication influence the strength of your relationship?
Use the last discussion question to assign students “homework”. Ask every student to teach at least one person the I-statement framework of communication that evening. The next morning, follow-up with students to see who shared the framework and what their experience was like.
Instead of saying “You are…” can I say, “I feel like you are…”?
By adding “like” or “that” to the phrase “I feel…” (i.e. “I feel like…” or “I feel that…”) you are simply disguising a you-statement. This can be an easy trap to fall into and disguising a you-statement doesn’t change the effect it has. These disguised statements still come across as being accusatory and are normally met with hostility, anger, or defensiveness. “I feel” statements should be focused on the honest disclosure of your actual feelings. To avoid disguising you-statements, remember that the words “I feel” must be followed by a feeling (ex. sad, glad, disappointed, excited, angry, hurt, happy, etc.).
Can this only be used for conflicts and negative emotions?
No, you can use I-statements to help you communicate a whole range of emotions and experiences. Some of the “when” prompts that we used in class were for positive emotions. Let’s use the prompt “When I accomplish a goal…” as an example. How do you feel when you accomplish a goal or something that you have been working really hard on for a long time? You might feel proud or excited. When you are feeling proud, excited, or any other positive emotion, there are also going to be certain things that you need or ways in which others can support you. For example, you might really like it if someone celebrates with you or acknowledges your hard work. Putting it all together, your I-statement might sound something like this: “I feel proud of myself when I accomplish a goal because I worked really hard and was able to succeed despite facing challenges. I would really like it if my hard work is acknowledged and if I am able to celebrate my success”. It’s important that you are also able to effectively communicate the positive events in your life and be transparent about how you “expect” another person to respond. Research has shown that for otherwise healthy relationships, what distinguishes good relationships from poor relationships is not how people respond to one another’s disappointments, but how they respond to good news!
Does this mean that I am never going to be able to express anger?
When we feel angry the natural response is to fight and lash out. Anger often leads to blaming and fuels you-statements. Therefore, it can be useful to think of anger as a secondary emotion. What I mean by this is that anger is often used to mask a more vulnerable primary emotion like fear, sadness, insecurity, or hurt. In these cases, it feels easier and safer to express anger than it is to express the primary emotion. However, when you are talking to someone who is close to you, like a family member or friend, it is much more helpful for them to hear the primary emotion, otherwise the situation or their behaviour will not change. For example, let’s say that you didn’t come home one night until 8:30pm even though your mom has a rule that you need to be home by 8pm every evening. When you walk in the front door your mom is angry and her voice is raised and she yells: “Where were you? What do you think you are doing by breaking the rules? Do you ever think about anyone other than yourself?!?” How would you respond to your mom in this situation? Maybe you would yell back at her or maybe you would simply run to your room and slam the door. It’s going to be hard for this discussion to turn into a constructive conversation. But, let’s consider what happens when your mom recognizes that anger is a secondary emotion that is masking her fear. If your mom had communicated her fear, then her response might have sounded something like this: “I was really scared when you were late and didn’t call or text me because I thought something might have happened to you”. In this situation, you can understand your mom’s perspective and you hear the expression of love and concern. By hearing your mom’s primary emotion, you are able to respond more effectively and respect your mom’s needs.
In some cases, anger will be your primary emotion. People generally feel angry in response to injustice (ex. when rights are violated). When you are truly feeling angry, use the three parts of I-statements to calmly communicate your feelings, experiences and needs.