Do “I-statements” Help or Hinder Communication in Professional Contexts?
Published on May 22, 2018
In her internationally best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, advises women to “speak your truth” but to do so in an appropriate, yet non-threatening way—to be “not brutally honest but delicately honest.” As one way maintain this delicate honesty, Sandberg provides some fairly standard conflict negotiation advice:
Statements of opinion are always more constructive in the first-person “I” form. Compare these two statements: “You never take my suggestions seriously” and “I feel frustrated that you have not responded to my last four emails, which leads me to believe that my suggestions are not that important to you. Is that so?” 
Sandberg’s advice is commonplace professional communication advice. In a magazine article for Industrial Engineers, Eileen Brownwell urges her readers to learn what she calls “communication basics” such as owning messages by “starting statements with ‘I need’ or ‘I want.’” Multiple articles on the Beyond Intractability conflict resolution database advocate the use of “I–messages” that take the form of “I feel (emotion/s) when (circumstance/s).” .
The popularity of I-statements as a conflict resolution device can be traced to the American psychologist Thomas Gordon who coined the term “I messages” in the 1960s in his work with children and parents. From there, this advice spread to other domains—including the professional workplace. The research supporting the use of I-statements in conflict management is surprising thin and most empirical research testing the effectiveness of these statements has focused on the context of romantic relationships . When the effectiveness of “I- statements” has been studied outside of the romantic relationships, researchers have found no difference in participants’ reactions to negative statements phrased using “I statements” rather than “you-statements” (Bippus & Young 2005).
But at ProComm 2018, Joanna Wolfe will present research on female engineers troubleshooting difficult team situations showing that— for women in engineering contexts—I statements are not only ineffective but potentially counter- productive. I statements particularly have the potential to backfire when they take the format “I feel (emotion/s).” Her qualitative study of 23 female engineers with at least five years of workplace experience who participated in discourse completion interviews. Overall, one third of these women explicitly advised against using “I feel” statements. These women made comments such as:
You can’t say, “I feel excluded from the project….” Who cares? Why does he care if you feel excluded from the project? ….Feelings don’t matter, especially in engineering.
She shouldn’t say, “But I feel excluded.” It’s not—when you’re dealing with men, how you feel isn’t important. That’s a female thing, too. I feel hurt. I feel. They don’t care, and that’s putting you in a box that you don’t need to be in.
*Adapted from Joanna Wolfe, Proceedings of the IEEE Professional Communication Conference, Toronto, Canada. July 23-25th, 2018.