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Last updated: Sep 19th, 2018

Using I Statements for Solidarity and Persuasion

This is an article version of the message in my YouTube video by the same name. You can watch the video here:

What is an I-statement?

An I-statement is a type of statement that uses a clause like: "I think..." or "I believe..." before whatever thought or idea it expresses.

I statements can be particularly useful and important when talking to people who have different views or beliefs from the ideas you are trying to express, especially if the topics are emotionally-charged, such as religion or politics.

Here are some examples of I-statements:

Sincere and accurately-communicated I-statements are true literally

An interesting feature of I-statements is that if you use these statements to sincerely voice and accurately depict your own thoughts or feelings, the I-statement is always going to be literally true, even if the idea contained in it is not true.

For example, suppose you wrongly believe that your coworker Cathy actually finished her work, when in reality, she didn't. If you say: "I think Cathy finished her work today.", your I-statement will be literally true, because you will be expressing your belief, even though the belief itself is untrue. The only way your statement would be untrue is if it were insincere or inaccurate in depicting your belief, such as if you lied and said that you thought she finished her work, when in reality you knew she had not finished it.

Using I-statements can thus be a way of increasing the truthfulness of conversations and discussions.

This same pattern plays out when the idea or issue being discused is controversial, such as the question of whether or not George W. Bush's policies were bad for the economy. If you don't agree with me, i.e. suppose you believe that his policies were good for the economy, you can still agree with the literal truth in statement: "I think that George W. Bush's policies were bad for the economy." even though you don't agree with the content of my thought. Contrast with how you might react if I worded the same idea without an I-statement, saying: "George W. Bush's policies were bad for the economy." Now, you would no longer agree with my statement; you would see the statement itself as untrue.

This simple difference in truthfulness of statements lays the groundwork for building solidarity and goodwill with people who hold different viewpoints. The I-statement effectively "gives someone something to agree with", even in the case where we disagree on specific points. When people use I-statements in conversing with each other on controversial points, they can acknowledge and agreee with statements about each other's beliefs, even if they don't agree about the beliefs themselves.

Take the following exchange as an example:

In this exchange, both people have gained some insight, and build some common grounds. Even if people disagree about the analysis of the economic effects of the policies, both people agree about what Person 1's beliefs are, as well as about what Person 2's beliefs are. Both people have learned something and acknowledged and agreed about each other's perspectives or stances. Perhaps more importantly, we both have learned, and are in agreement, that the idea itself is disputed.

Contrast with stating things as simple facts

The contrast to an "I-statement" is when you state something as a simple fact. Here are corresponding statements to the examples above:

Each of these statements has its own problems with it. The first two statements, particularly the one with the term "wrong", can come across as abrasive, rude, or disrespectful.

These statements also give other people listening less space to agree with the statements, if they dispute the ideas in them.

My experience with these statements

I've consistently noticed that, when I voice my perspectives using I-statements, people are much more likely to perceive me as communicating in a positive and respectful way, when they don't hold the same viewpoints as what I'm trying to express. This change in perception carries with it several benefits.

One is that it can be valuable to converse with people who hold different viewpoints from your own, and by opening up or facilitating these kinds of conversations, everyone benefits in terms of broadening their perspectives and learning from each other.

In particular, there are times when persuading people can be important or beneficial. There are times when I know certain things to be true, and other people may be misinformed about them or hold less truthful viewpoints on them. Similarly, there are times when my own beliefs are not as truthful, and other people have valuable insights to offer me. I generally think that it's a good thing when people are open to listening to each other and open to changing their mind about beliefs.

I have found that using I-statements can make you more persuasive by making it more likely that people who disagree with you or hold different viewpoints from yours, hear you out fully enough that they actually come to understand your perspective. In some cases, when someone fully understands your perspective, they may be convinced by it. Similarly, when people use these statements when conversing with me, it helps me to be more open to them and makes it more likely I will learn from them.

In summary

I hope I have convinced you of the benefits of using I-statements when discussing controversial issues or points. I think a large portion of the problems in our society could be solved, especially ones related to the political system, if people more widely practiced respectful communication, and I think I-statements are a key aspect of respectful communication.

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