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Techniques for expressing feelings


The following "I feel" statements and "I" messages will help you:

  • Express feelings productively.
  • Respectfully confront someone when you are bothered by his or her behavior.
  • Express difficult feelings without attacking the self-esteem of the person.
  • Clarify for you and the other person precisely what you feel.
  • Prevent feelings from building up and festering into a bigger problem.
  • Communicate difficult feelings in a manner that minimizes the other person’s need to become defensive, and increases the likelihood that the person will listen.

When you first start using these techniques they will be cumbersome and awkward to apply, and not very useful if you only know them as techniques. However, if you practice these techniques and turn them into skills, it will be easy for you to express difficult feelings in a manner that is productive and respectful.

Which of the two methods you use for expressing your feelings should depend on your goal, the importance or difficulty of your feelings and the situation.

  1. "I feel" statements  are used in situations that are clear and fairly simple, when you what to express yourself and avoid a buildup of feelings without attacking or hurting the self-esteem of the other.
  2. "I" messages  are used in more complex situations to clarify for yourself and the other person just what you are feeling when a) you have difficult negative feelings, b) you confront someone and want them to change their behavior, and c) it is very sensitive and important that the other person accurately understand.

"I Feel" Statements

These statements take the form of "When you did that thing I felt this wayThat thing is a behavior of the other person, and this way is your specific feelings. Here are some examples:

  • "I felt embarrassed when you told our friends how we are pinching pennies."
  • "I liked it when you helped with the dishes without being asked."
  • "I feel hurt and am disappointed that you forgot our anniversary".

"I" Messages

It is called an I message because the focus is on you, and the message is about yourself. This is in contrast to a You message which focuses on and gives a message about the other person. When using I messages you take responsibility for your own feelings, rather than accusing the other person of making you feel a certain way. A You message does not communicate a feeling, but a belief about the other person. The essence of an I message is "I have a problem", while the essence of a You message is "You have a problem".
There are four parts to an I message:

  • When  ... Describe the person’s behavior you are reacting to in an objective, non-blameful, and non-judgmental manner.
  • The effects are  ... Describe the concrete or tangible effects of that behavior. (This is the most important part for the other person to understand - your reaction.)
  • I feel  ... Say how you feel. (This is the most important part to prevent a buildup of feelings.)
  • I’d prefer  ... Tell the person what you want or what you prefer they do. You can omit this part if it is obvious.

The order in which you express these parts is usually not important. Here are some examples:

  • "When you take company time for your personal affairs and then don’t have time to finish the urgent work I give you, I get furious. I want you to finish the company’s work before you work on your personal affairs."
  • "I lose my concentration when you come in to ask a question, and I don’t like it. Please don’t interrupt me when I am working unless it is urgent."
  • "It is very hard for me to keep our place neat and clean when you leave your clothes and other stuff laying around. It creates a lot more work for me and it takes a lot longer, and I get resentful about it. I’d prefer that you put your clothes away and put your trash in the basket."
  • "I resent it when your flirting with the women keeps you from having time for your work, because it means more work for me."

Common Mistakes 

  • Not expressing a feeling at all, expressing a belief or judgment.
  • Sending a disguised You message.
  • Only expressing negative feelings.
  • The nonverbal body language contradicting the words. For example, smiling when irritated.  

Practice these techniques and turn them into useful skills.  Make it easy for yourself to spontaneously express difficult feelings in a manner that is productive and respectful.