Using “I” statements
Henry Good, Home Shalom Teen Consultant:
Greetings! My name is Henry Good, and I am a senior at Crespi Carmelite High School, and live in Valley Village, California. This year I will be serving as Home Shalom’s Teen Consultant. My experience with social justice is, safe to say, quite new. I am still learning every day about the rising issues such as gender norms/equality, consent, racial tensions, etc. Up until this year, really, I had never thought deeply about these issues. I go to an all-male Catholic Prep school (yup, even though I identify as a Jew), so i am constantly surrounded by a male dominant culture. As somebody who lives in this environment, I feel it is not only necessary but significantly important that I step up and speak out against a society that doesn’t fully understand things such as healthy communication skills. Every day when I go to school, there are guys blaming other people for inappropriate behavior, even for what happens to them. This type of behavior is unacceptable. I would say that these things make me angry, but that shows I am guilty of the same behavior. It reminds me of hearing people say, “Look what you made me do!” See, I control my own emotions and actions and what others do doesn’t make me do things or feel things. Nobody makes me do anything! What I should be saying is, “When you talk like that, I feel so angry.” Bring it back to me, how I feel, how I react, what I need from you.
I feel that many guys would agree if only they knew that starting with “I” instead of “you” sends a whole different message. When it comes to boys, social responsibility is a tricky topic, but one we need to have. I aim to push to have these conversations. Even though they can be uncomfortable, they are extremely necessary. It is my responsibility as
a young adult to help teach guys around me why these things not only are important but are necessary in order to have good relationships.
The Spiritual Power of “I” Sentences
Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Home Shalom Founder:
One of the most often quoted rabbinic statements from the Talmud is that of the famous sage Hillel who in the Mishnah Avot wrote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Mishnah Avot 1:14). Over 2,000 years ago, our ancestors had the wisdom to recognize that a healthy human being is one who balances self-worth and self-respect with respect and caring for others. As the sage Hillel so aptly reminds us, it is a mitzvah to stand up for yourself and your own personal dignity and worth, to serve as a positive role model for others regarding how to successfully function as part of a larger community of shared values and ethics. In fact, the sages of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) went so far as to teach, “Everyone is obligated to say, ‘the whole world was created for my sake,’” in order to emphasize the importance of standing up for yourself, of speaking your truth whenever you communicate with others, and to find your own unique voice in the world that deserves to be heard.
Using “I” sentences, stating what you need in such a way that others can clearly understand what you are saying, where you are coming from and what you desire from them is a powerful spiritual practice. When we get up in the morning, Jewish tradition encourages us to recite the Modeh Ani blessing that in essence says, “Thank you God for returning my soul to me once again and having enough faith in me to give me another day of life.” Our ancestors believed that every day is a divine gift from God and that the very fact that we are born and alive and wake up each day is proof that God believes in us and our inherent worth and value as one-of-a-kind human beings with our own unique tasks to accomplish in life.
Using “I” sentences is a way of giving expression to that sense of self-worth and personal value by expressing who we truly are and what we truly want in our lives in every interaction and relationship. They are expressions of owning our spiritual power and believing in ourselves on the most profound and fundamental level. They are the ultimate reflection of the idea that every human being, including you, has been created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and as such has the responsibility to give expression to the highest and most important truths of our lives.
Judy Gordon, Consultant to Home Shalom:
Do you remember the first time you heard or said, ”Look what you made me do?” Many of us heard that from the time we were very young. We might have actually believed that our actions were the cause of someone else’s mishaps. How did it make you feel? Guilty? Sorry? Defensive? Resentful?
That is a classic “you” statement that is designed to make you feel upset, responsible, and the need to change. This is neither a positive nor healthy nor effective mode of communication. By and large, what we each feel or do may be relative to what someone else said or did, but no one else is responsible for our actions or reactions.
I statements, on the other hand, are used with the intent to be assertive without putting the listener on the defensive. They are used to take ownership for one’s feelings and actions rather than implying that they are caused by another person. They are also a way to let the other person know what triggers us and builds a communication bridge between both people.
Say whatever is going on with you, but say it in a way that expresses how you feel. You may think that the “I” statement doesn’t really look different from the “You” statement, but it most assuredly feels different. I can vouch for that!
Teaching tool: I statements / interactive exercise
Naomi Ackerman, Executive Director/Founder of The Advot Project:
You can implement this game in person and/or over Zoom!
Pre-make four signs that have one phrase on each sign:
1. MOVE OVER
2. BE QUIET
3. STOP IT
4. You have food in your teeth!
How we ask for things matters. The way we ask for something will affect the probability of our getting it.
Hold up the “Move Over” sign. Ask the group to yell the command “Move Over!” at you. Ask them to say it “like they mean it,” in an assertive way. Ask the group if they think saying “Move Over!” so forcefully will allow them to get what they want.
Discuss. How might they better get what they want in that situation?
Introduce using “I” statements and giving explanations.
For example: “I was saving this seat for my friend; could you move over?”
If you need something from someone, a good practice is to use “I” sentences, stating what you need and including an explanation so the other person can more clearly understand where you’re coming from.
Hold up “Be Quiet!” sign. Ask students how they might say this more effectively.
For example, “I would like you to speak more quietly because I have a headache.”
Introduce the three Fs:
Fact – Feeling – Fair Request
Fact: “There are dishes in the sink.”
Feeling: “I get irritated by dishes in the sink.” Fair request: “Please wash any dishes you use!”
Consider real-life situations in which they might use “I” statements and have students practice the 3Fs tool.
The key is that no one can argue with facts or feelings.
Further, for the most part, if you give someone an explanation for what you need them to do, people will generally do it.
If you say to someone “You need to move over,” they can answer “No, I don’t!”
If you instead say “I am saving this seat for my friend,” they cannot say “No, you aren’t.”
Hold up sign: “You have food in your teeth!”
Ask students how you might say this more effectively? What do we do when we need to say something uncomfortable? We lead with “I” sentences and with radical honesty.
“I feel bad but have to tell you that you have food in your teeth” or “I would suggest you look in the mirror and clean your teeth.”
“I” sentences clarify what you want.
“I” sentences are the best way to start difficult conversations.
If you can’t say it for yourself, no one will.
You might not get what you are asking for, but at least you tried!
Have fun and always find joy!