The Problem with Using “I Statements” at Work

Executive Summary

It has become common advice for business people to use “I statements” — such as, “I feel frustrated that you missed the budget deadline twice” — as a way to raise challenging conversations without provoking defensiveness. While I statements may be helpful for maintaining personal relationships, in professional settings they can backfire. Why? First, they can make you seem weak or emotional (especially risky for women). Second, they can make it seem that you’re more interested in what’s best for yourself than in what’s best for the business. And third, they can make you seem weak. Instead, leave yourself out of the equation, and focus on making an argument about what the business needs.

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It has become common advice for businesspeople to use “I statements” — such as, “I feel frustrated that you missed the budget deadline twice” — as a way to raise challenging conversations without causing colleagues to feel blamed or under attack. Indeed, I statements may be helpful during situations in which you have a close personal relationship to a colleague who cares about your well-being, or when you want to show that a particular issue has moral implications for you.

But in most cases, I statements are more likely to undercut your argument than to strengthen it. Here are three reasons why I statements backfire, and what you can do instead.

They can be seen as expressions of emotionalism, particularly when they’re used by women. One vice president I coached was frustrated by a decision her executive team was planning to make. She sought advice from HR about how to convince two crucial members of the disadvantages of one course of action and the benefits of another. Her HR business partner advised her that framing her argument in I statements, to show how much she cared and how strongly she felt, would help her sound less negative and be more persuasive. But when the vice president met with the two executives, they were clearly unmoved, and they began to discount her perspective publicly in subsequent group meetings.

When she told me about the conversation, I noted how personal her comments sounded, and how she might have damaged her credibility if the execs believed her feelings were hurt because her advice hadn’t been taken, rather than recognizing that she was concerned about potential harm to the business. We brainstormed a solid case complete with specific examples, trends, and likely outcomes. She went to the next meeting armed with data from past similar situations and projections for future results, and was significantly more effective when she let the numbers do the talking for her, rather than appearing to have taken things personally.

They can appear to be about what’s best for you personally. Here’s another example from one of my clients. A sales rep had a special accommodation to use a private office several times a day to tend to a health condition. His sales manager approached him and explained that the room would not be available for a few days because of construction, but that the rep could use a conference room or another manager’s office, or could work from home until the construction was completed. The rep reacted negatively to all three options and made a number of both formal and informal complaints about being displaced.

When I debriefed with the sales manager about the situation, he reported that he had used language like “I really need you to give up the private room for a few days” and “I’m really trying to make this work for you” as a way to create a sense of mutual interest and concern. But the appeal didn’t work: The rep felt that the manager was doing what was easy for him, and that if he was really trying to help, he would have changed the construction schedule. The manager and I discussed how the language could have been more neutral, impersonal, and inevitable to prepare for future, similar circumstances: “Unfortunately, there’s going to be construction in this room for a few days. We have three different possible accommodations available for you during that time. Please let me know which will be best for you.”

They can put you at risk of appearing weak. This is particularly a concern because leaders tend to be less empathetic the higher in the organization they go, and are more likely to be interested in what you can accomplish than sympathetic about the challenges you’re facing. A director I coach described his plan to confront his boss about an interdepartmental problem. His intention was to use an I-statement structure to elicit his boss’s concern and convey how strong a stand he was taking: “I feel I cannot deal with the way things are going with department X anymore.” I suggested that he start the conversation by asking his boss what outcomes she wanted; say something more authoritative, like, “Our current approach with the other department is ineffective”; and then describe the steps he was taking to work with the difficult department. Otherwise, he was likely to come across as if the issue was his inability to handle the problem or his refusal to see the situation from the other department’s point of view. He agreed that his boss would be irritated if she thought he was demonizing the other department and emphasizing his personal frustration as if he needed to be spared the responsibility of finding a solution.

Many decision makers are uncomfortable with emotional content, and can react badly if they feel they’re being embroiled in drama or are being emotionally blackmailed. It’s typically more convincing to use analytical or evidence-based appeals than descriptions of personal impact. After many years of workplace consulting, I’ve found that it’s often more persuasive to leave oneself out of the equation, and to highlight instead what’s beneficial to the work team or the business itself.