Communication is key in any relationship. It has the power to lift someone up, and unfortunately the power to tear someone down. As peer support specialists, we can’t afford to be careless with our words.
Our goal is to motivate and inspire. However, misunderstandings can sometimes get in the way. A simple strategy to avoid them is the use of “I” statements. This is a skill that we often teach to those we support but we can also use it in our own work.
This post is your roadmap to using “I” statements in peer support. It’s a powerful tool that can help keep communication positive and constructive.
Table of Contents
What Are "I" Statements?
“I” statements are not just sentences that start with the word “I.” Rather, they are a way of expressing feelings, thoughts, and beliefs from a personal perspective.
By using “I” statements, you’re taking ownership of your emotions and inviting others into your world without judgment or assumption.
Misunderstandings and disagreements cause a gap in communication. In fact, it’s kind of like standing on different sides of a river. “I” statements are the bridge that allows you to meet in the middle.
Why Use "I" Statements?
But why use “I” statements in peer support you ask. Because they create a safe space for open dialogue. They allow you to say, “This is how I feel, and I want to understand how you feel too.” It’s a conversation starter, a trust builder, and a way keep communication positive.
When we use “I” statements to express how we feel, it keeps the focus on us. This way, our message doesn’t sound so accusatory.
For example, which of these two statements is more likely to receive a positive response?
“You never listen to me! Your always interrupting!”
“I feel hurt whenever you interrupt me because it makes me feel unimportant.”
Using I statements keeps the attention centered on us and how we feel about what happened. Moreover, it doesn’t assume anything about the other person’s intentions. By saying “I feel” or “ I believe” you are opening the door for discussion.
Alternatively, when accusations and assumptions are made it only encourages others to put up their defenses.
Obviously, we can use this technique if we need to address a conflict between peers. Similarly, we can use them in situations in our own lives. However, becoming familiar with “I” statements is about more than just being effective communicators.
It’s definitely an important technique for peer specialists.
But more than that, we can teach this skill to the individuals we work with. Whether this is done through direct teaching, or through the modeling of healthy behaviors, it helps individuals learn healthier ways of communicating.
In my own experience, simply being a role model of good communication skills can make a big difference.
In other words, never underestimate how much your words and actions can affect someone.
For better… or for worse.
The Power of "I" Statements
“I” statements are more than just a communication technique. They are a respectful starting point for trust, understanding, and meaningful connections.
Let’s look at how these statements can impact our relationships in peer support.
Building Trust and Finding Balance
Trust is the cornerstone of any relationship, especially in peer support, where vulnerability and openness are essential. “I” statements lay the foundation for trust by allowing you to express your feelings without judgment or blame.
Not only that, but it reduces the likelihood of someone feeling like they are being accused of something or told what to do.
Now, is this always the case?
Of course not. There will be instances where individuals still respond in a negative way. However, this technique makes it far less likely.
Overall, these tools can transform the way peer support specialists handle disagreements and misunderstandings. In fact, I statements are a key factor in conflict resolution.
As we said before, words carry weight, and the way we use them can make all the difference.
The Positive Side of "I" Statements
It should be noted that “I” statements can be used to acknowledge positive things as well. It works in the same way except instead of pointing out what bothers you, you notice something that you liked.
For example, “I feel connected when we are able to have these meaningful conversations because they let me understand you better”.
Again, because of the clarity of the statement the individual listening understands exactly what you appreciate about the situation. I mean, compare that last statement with something like, “I like talking to you”.
Sure, it’s still a nice complement but compared to the “I” statement, it’s much less meaningful.
If you find yourself talking to someone who doesn’t take complements well or finds reasons to dismiss them, this is your tool. Since you are still speaking of your own experience, the person is less likely to find some way to discredit the complement.
Challenges to using "I" Statements in Peer Support
Like any tool, “I” statements come with their own set of challenges. They can be distorted and used in a that still places blame or comes off as confrontational. However, with a little self awareness and way practice most of these mistakes can be avoided.
The ones that can’t, well, they can be used as stepping stones toward understanding and empathy.
Let’s explore some common challenges that might come up.
Remember, challenges are simply opportunities in disguise.
Avoid phrases like “I feel like you…” as they can sound blaming. It’s like pointing a finger instead of extending a hand. Not only that, but it’s making an assumption about the other person’s intentions.
When using these statements, stick to the facts. Specifically, how you feel, what happened, and the reason why you feel that way. Limiting yourself to speaking about your own experience reduces the chance that someone with feel attacked.
Saying “I feel bad” without explaining why is like serving a dish without its main ingredient. Moreover, it leaves the door open for interpretation. If someone says, “I feel bad”, in all reality it could mean anything.
Are they angry? Are they sad?
Vague statements can be confusing. And trust me, when there is already some kind of misunderstanding, confusion is the last thing you want.
While powerful, “I” statements can lose their impact if overused. It’s like playing a beautiful song on repeat… Eventually, it just sounds like noise.
In fact, when these statements get used repeatedly, they can almost sound patronizing.
As mentioned before, this tool is meant to be a bridge in communication. However, if used incorrectly, it can end up being just another stumbling block.
A Few Tips For Success with "I" Statements
Success with “I” statements comes with practice and intention. That being said, there are a few things that might help you feel more comfortable when learning and practicing this technique.
Here are some tips to guide you.
Practice with less emotionally charged situations. It’s like learning to swim in the shallow end before diving into the deep. Alternatively, practice using “I” statements to notice the positive things about a situation.
This allows you to learn without the pressure of making things worse. Better yet, if you have a friend or colleague that’s willing to role play, take advantage of it. I know, role playing can feel awkward but it really does make a difference.
Building on the last tip, ask for feedback from trusted colleagues or friends. This is important, because sometimes something sounds good in our head but can end up coming out wrong.
Getting feedback from colleagues is like having a mirror, it allows us to see where we might have missed something.
It may seem like an odd suggestion, but it can make a huge difference in communication. Basically, it makes you more aware of your words and emotions. Mainly, because the more in tune you are with how you feel, the easier it is to communicate that emotion.
Additionally, if you find yourself getting upset, you can notice it and take a step back.
I’m sure we have all experienced saying something that we later wished we hadn’t.
Reflect and Adjust
After using an “I” statement, reflect on its impact. Don’t be afraid of a moment of silence. Sometimes you might notice the urge to continue talking or say something to justify your point of view. However, this would be a mistake.
Remember, it’s not about proving anything. Rather, you are simply expressing your feelings and observations about the situation.
Once you throw the ball, wait for the other person to return it. Rushing over to take it back may lead to further misunderstandings.
Final Thoughts on "I" Statements
At the end of the day, authenticity is the most important part. Speak from the heart, and your “I” statements are more likely to hit their mark. More importantly, be intentional with your words.
Clear, concise, and to the point, this is what you should aim for.
As simple as they seem, “I” statements can require some practice before you truly feel comfortable using them. While it’s important to be mindful of common mistakes, it’s also important to embrace the learning process.
Finally, “I” statements are a tool, not a rule. In other words, use them when they fit the situation. Like choosing the right key for a lock, if we try to force them we can end up doing more harm than good.
We hope this article gave you a better understanding of how to use an “I” Statement and if you have questions, feel free to reach out!
Additional Learning Resources
Continuous learning is a big part of peer support. The following resources can provide further insight and guidance into “I” Statements and effective communication.
- “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall B. Rosenberg: This book provides a solid foundation for compassionate communication, including the use of “I” statements. I have a super old copy of this book that I still use from time to time.
- “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler: Offers practical tools for effective communication, including the use of “I” statements in high-stakes situations.
- Coursera – Improving Communication Skills from the University of Pennsylvania ()**: A comprehensive course that covers various communication techniques, including the use of “I” statements.
- The Power of Vulnerability- Brene Brown: This video isn’t specifically related to the use of “I” statements. However, it covers effective communication and goes into the importance of expressing feelings in an honest way.
Elijah Meason is a Certified Peer Support Worker in the State of New Mexico. He is a SMART Recovery facilitator and is working toward getting his Masters degree in social work. He is currently working at a dual diagnosis treatment center helping individuals overcome mental health and addiction challenges.