I say, I say, I say…

I-statements. To quote Wikipedia:

“I-messages are often used with the intent to be assertive without putting the listener on the defensive. They are also used to take ownership for one’s feelings rather than implying that they are caused by another person. An example of this would be to say: “I really am getting backed up on my work since I don’t have the financial report yet,” rather than: “you didn’t finish the financial report on time!” (The latter is an example of a “you-statement”).[3]”

Seems like a great idea, and it’s no surprise that some of the groups contacting Rhizome are keen on I-statements. And yet they ( the I-statements, not the groups) are irritating me.

OK, let’s back up. There’s no doubt that in some situations (many situations) clear, assertive and yet sensitive communication is just what’s needed to help a group recognise and then deal with conflict. And, as always, we’d welcome your experience on the subject. Disclaimer over.

So what’s the problem?

Like several other established group tools, such as handsignals and groundrules, we’ve critiqued over the years they can become part of the problem they seek to overcome.

I recently worked with a group in which people would suggest from the sidelines of a conflict “use I-statements, use I-statements”, and it rang alarm bells for me. What I felt I was detecting was the faint hint of moral high ground. My sense (which has been known to be wrong) was that in conflict if one party used I-statements and the other didn’t, then the group would have more sympathy with the former, awarding them the moral high ground. I-statements were part of the code of acceptable behaviour for this group. Dealing with conflict, emotion, values without them was less acceptable behaviour.

It felt like I-statements were a tool of the mainstream of the group, and as such could be used to strengthen their mainstream power and position at the expense of others for whom this mode of communication wasn’t the norm. I also felt that the concentration on I-statements had the potential to defelct attention from the real underlying issues of the conflict. There were some unhealthy, even oppressive, dynamics at work, none of which I heard recognised and expressed in I-statements or otherwise.

I also worry about the control an I-statement brings to communication. I know that on one level it’s meant to moderate (and therefore de-escalate) a situation. But don’t you feel sometimes we have to let rip. It’s not just a carefully constructed sentence that expresses how we feel, it’s the body language, the tone of voice and, yes, sometimes it’s the passion and vehemence (some might say violence) of the expression that communicates just what we’re experiencing. I’m sure I-statements can be used this way with enough experience, but almost all of us lack that (not an excuse for not working towards it, I realise.

Another day, another group and a participant leaves the room, storms out even, slams the door and shouts “C*nt!”. No I-statements to be heard. But pretty clear communication, and valuable communication. No-one’s under any illusions as to the depth of emotion being felt. I’m pretty sure that the suggestion to “use I-statements” in this moment would have aggravated the situation, would have been unwelcome restraint and confinement and would have made it harder for the participant to rejoin the group.

So the message if there is one? No group process or tool is a panacea and that applies to I-statements as much as any other. If I-statements empower the least powerful in your group to be heard, then encourage and celebrate them. If they’re just another way to confirm the superiority of the powerful then I can live without them!