Communication After a Time Out: Five Steps for “I Messages” to Repair and Fight Fairly Through Relationship Counseling

Good communication is necessary to repair when a fight has escalated and a time-out has been called.  When you come back together later to talk, “I” messages are an effective means to communicate because they maintain a respectful attitude towards your partner while you get to say how it is for you. Use an “I” statement when you want to be CLEAR, as it’s not about being polite.   It’s an opener to the conversation about repairing the fight. The resolution will come later in your talk.

When constructing “I” statements, AVOID

-using “like” or “that”.   Use “I feel” followed by an accurate description such as “sad”, “glad”, “hurt”, “scared”, etc.

-using disguised “you” statements such as “I feel that you” or “I feel like you”.   “You” statements tends to put your partner in a one-down position.

-covering up the intensity of your feelings.   If you minimize your feelings your partner may not get the full impact or meaning.

 What are “You” messages?   Look at the list below and notice how you feel reading them:

  • You could do better
  • You did not do that the right way
  • You should have known
  • You can’t
  • You are wrong
  • You should be ashamed

You statements tend to make people feel defensive, rejected, so they don’t want to listen, and are less likely to want to repair the relationship wound.

 How do “I” messages affect you?

  • I feel happy
  • I feel powerful
  • I feel insecure
  • I feel you are being thoughtful
  • I feel scared
  • I want to spend time with you
  • I’m upset

“I” messages tend to make people feel more connected, and empathetic, even when the subject is emotionally charged.

When to Use and Construct “I” messages

When one needs to confront the other about his/her behavior, such as after a time out, for example.

When one doesn’t feel treated fairly.

When we feel defensive.

When your partner is angry with you.

 Step 1.   LISTEN

How to listen:

-Don’t interrupt

-Repeat or reflect back what they just said

-Nod, or say “I see”

-Be ready to listen – is your body language showing you’re listening?

-Minimize advice giving

So you think…

What I’m hearing…

Step 2. USE “I” AND NOT “YOU”

I feel….

My concern is….

When I’m…

Step 3. FOCUS ON THE BEHAVIOR AND NOT THE PERSON

When I’m yelled at I….

When clothes are left on the floor…

When I’m ignored….

Step 4. STATE HOW THE BEHAVIOR IMPACTS YOU

I feel hurt when….

I feel unappreciated when…

I get worried when…

I get really anxious when…

Step 5. STATE WHAT YOU NEED TO HAPPEN

It would be nice if…

I need to…

What I’d like to see happen is…

An example: “Whenever you are late picking me up” (description of offending behavior) “it causes me to be late for my job” (concrete effect on you). “I feel very frustrated when this happens,” (how you feel) “and I really need you to be more punctual” (the behavior you prefer).

What’s next? PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

I encourage couples to practice with less charged issues in the relationship, such as where to eat for dinner or what fun date to go on.   Relationship counseling is also a safe place to practice how to fight fairly, and use “I” messages, when everything feels overwhelming, or negative.

Wouldn’t it be ideal if we never had relationship problems? Learn to MANAGE them, so you can repair from a disagreement faster after a time-out, so resentments and distrust don’t build.   When you communicate the annoyance, irritation, frustration and anger in a more controlled way it is a more effective outlet for these negative feelings WHILE STAYING IN THE RELATIONSHIP.   We are less likely to cause reactions that lead to more problems.  The tyranny of constant “you” messages disconnects people when they’re angry. A few sessions to learn effective “I” message communication can offer years of clarity to the normal ups and downs of intimate relationship.

Jim Bowen MA LPC has been assisting individuals and couples since 1992, with offices in Boulder and Denver. Contact Jim with email or call him at 303-534-8717. Why not call for a free consultation?