When We Argue, I Hurt!

In teaching family mediators the techniques of reframing and active listening, we often imply using “I” statements (acknowledging and accepting responsibility for one’s own feelings rather than blaming the other party), is preferable to “you” statements. We spend considerable time reframing, rephrasing, and practicing removing the venom, if you will, from parties’ statements to make them more neutral, less accusatory, and less likely to incite the classic conflict dialogue trap of attack, defend, and counterattack.

In fact, as we teach new mediators to try to uncover the underlying feelings, interests, and needs of the parties, we inevitably tend to move away from “you” and toward ‘I” statements. We wordsmith, imply, and nudge trainees toward the concept of “I” statements, but we don’t usually employ the terminology or language associated with interpersonal communications (at least I’ve not heard us do so).

I’m wondering if rather than implying their use, if we shouldn’t more specifically and directly advocate “I” statements and the taking of “I” ownership responsibility in teaching mediation trainees?

Pronouns are notoriously ambiguous and their use makes it confusing and difficult to develop clear illustrations. Nevertheless, the following are examples of how mediators typically reframe to parties, incorporating the “I” statement concept rather than blame assigning “you” statements:

Taylor’s Dad: “Her Mom’s always just hanging out with her girlfriends and shopping – so she says. I’m the one working two jobs and sometimes have to put in overtime to make ends meet. She really pisses me off when she changes our exchange time or asks me to bring Taylor to meet her at the mall or at her mom’s house. My inconvenience is never considered!”

Mediator: “Is it fair to say, you feel under appreciated, get annoyed and become upset when the agreed schedule or exchange location is changed?”

Lil’ James’ Mom: “I hate it when his Dad tells Lil’ James he’s gonna come take him to play ball down at the park and he’s a “no show.” He doesn’t call, text, nothing – he’s just a trifling, undependable NO SHOW!”

Mediator: “I take it trust is important to you, and you become very irritated whenever follow-through is missing and there’s no notice?”

Kayla’s Mom: “He accuses me of not overseeing Kayla’s homework when I know damn well we do it every evening she has homework (some nights she doesn’t have any). Her teacher even mentioned how well she’s doing! He’s never done homework with her, doesn’t know any of her teachers, and never even been to her school, but he accuses me of things he knows absolutely nothing about!”

Mediator: “I hear you saying your daughter’s school work is important, you value involvement with her teachers and her school, and you’re offended when challenged about that.”

While encouraging more effective interpersonal communications and improved understanding among the parties, mediators would do well to point out how the speaker takes responsibility for their own feelings in these reframed examples and encourage parties to practice using “I” statements. Doing so might produce:

Taylor’s Dad to Mom: “I feel inconvenienced and disrespected when Taylor’s exchange place or time gets changed. I’m working really hard to hold up my end, and I’m feeling like my problems and my needs don’t count.”

Lil’ James’ Mom to Dad: “My protective instinct kicks in and I go on the war path if I see Lil’ James disappointed and emotionally hurt because there was no follow-through on promises made to him.”

Kayla’s Mom to Dad: “Kayla’s school work is extremely important to me and when I’m accused of not being on top of it, or of failing to monitor it without knowing the facts, it drives me over the edge!”

Encouraging parties to adopt “I” statements in their communication practices is totally consistent with the reframing many mediators already employ. Referring to the technique by the name “I” statements, recognizing that such statements are known to significantly improve interpersonal communications, and advocating for their adoption and use by parties in dispute, may offer added value to parties, regardless of whether or not a formal agreement is ultimately reached!