In the field of couples counseling and here at Long Island Psychology, one of the things we pay attention to when we listen to partners talk to us about their challenges is how they speak to each other. We look at their facial expressions, their anger, the words they use, and so on.
One of the things this includes is the usage of “I” versus “You” language. What we’re looking for in our couples counseling sessions and what we ask about is whether or not the couples are taking ownership of their discussions and feelings. Specifically, whether they use “I” or “You.”
The Difference Between Something Coming From “You”
When we are fighting, arguing, or having any type of important talk, the usage of the word “You” can become a source of many problems. “You” makes someone feel attacked, as though they are being accused of something that they may or may not have even done, and that the conversation is based only on their error and change.
It’s a word that leads some people to become defensive, because they feel like it is passing blame solely to them. They may even throw back their own “you” insults and attacks as a result, or simply shut down and withdraw from the conversation.
Why It’s Important to Showcase “I”
On the other hand, the word “I” can be far more productive. “I” takes ownership of your feelings. It recognizes that, in many arguments, there is a lot of gray area, and so instead of simply blaming someone for something they may deny or not feel, “I” establishes that you’re not arguing whether or not something is 100% someone else’s issue. Rather, you’re drawing the conversation back to yourself, and helping them understand your experience.
Often that little change – switching from “you did XYZ” to “I feel like XYZ” tapes into your partner’s sensitivity, takes control over what you’re discussing in the situation, and tends to elicit more openness from the other person – all things that are very important for someone that is hoping to have a productive conversation that generates real change and doesn’t create more hostility.
Because the reality is that in most relationships, there will be arguments and there will be fighting. But there are fights that are productive and fights that hurt the relationship more. Those that use “I” and talk about their own experience are more likely to have positive results than someone using “you” and proclaiming to know the other person’s experience.
So if you’re noticing that your language has changed when you talk to your partner, see if you can bring the topic of conversation back to yourself, and what you feel and experienced.