Back to Blog

Use “I” Statements for Conflict Resolution

Categories: Business Communication

When it comes to conflict management, strategic, respectful and honest communication is the absolute bottom line.

If you are trying to resolve a workplace conflict with another person, your tone of voice, your body language, the things you say and the words you choose will all affect the outcome.

Let’s say you’ve had an ongoing conflict with a coworker or direct report, and you’ve decided to face the issue head on. This is good thinking, because conflicts tend to escalate (if only in the minds of the people involved) until they’re blown up way bigger than necessary.

You’ve asked to discuss the situation and found a private spot to talk. Now what?

• It’s important to state your understanding of the conflict as neutrally as possible, and let the other person do the same.
• Listen carefully.
• Restate what you believe is being said, or ask questions, until you are both clear that you understand each other’s’ positions and perceptions.

If you are trying to create some rapport with the other person, or have things you need to get off your chest, it will be important to share how you feel and how you see things. I usually recommend using what are called “I” statements.

“I” statements are very powerful, because they allow the speaker to be fully accountable for his or her own feelings.

If done correctly, each party can wind up with have more empathy and understanding for the other, and the relationship can be strengthened. Sounds simple, right?

Let’s take a look at some effective “I” statements.

• I feel frustrated that this project is so far behind schedule.
• I get easily annoyed by a lot of distractions.
• I really want to make an important contribution to this department, and I don’t feel that I’m doing it as effectively as I could.

In each of the above statements, the speaker is taking responsibility for his or her feelings. Now let’s look at some “I” statements gone wrong.

• I feel frustrated that you haven’t finished the report, which has put the project so far behind schedule.
• I get annoyed when you keep distracting me.
• I really want to make an important contribution, but your micromanagement doesn’t let me do that.

These are really “YOU” statements masquerading as “I” statements. In each case, the speaker is blaming his or her feelings on someone else. Can you see the difference?

Now, the details of what you’re saying might be accurate. But, no one likes to be blamed -- so, “you” statements can never be part of a good conflict management strategy. It’s likely that these kinds of statements will exacerbate your conflict, instead of easing it.

Why do we so frequently choose blaming “you” statements instead of empowering “I” statements?

I believe it’s because simply expressing our own feelings makes us feel vulnerable, weak, perhaps even foolish or overly dramatic. We are afraid such expressions will show us in a bad light, and that we will be ridiculed or discounted. We want to tack on a reason to make them more acceptable, and the other person’s actions or statements provide the perfect scapegoat.

Do you believe that others control your emotions? Or, do you believe that your choices and reactions are your own? If you’d like to read more on this topic, I recommend my "mini" book on Accountability.

Back to Blog