Support Guide: Less 'I' More 'You'

The third point of my Support Guide, Less 'I' More 'You' is all about taking yourself out of the situation. It is an explicit reminder that this situation is not about you, and it encourages you to be mindful of how often you say I versus you.

Once you clue into this, it's quite interesting to observe this tendency in yourself and others. Very quickly, you'll become aware of just how frequently you or someone else uses 'I' or 'You' statements.

So what's difference? And why does it matter?

'I' statements are, as suggested, statements that start with 'I'. They are self referencing and make the subject of the sentence, and therefore the conversation, about the person speaking. Whereas 'You' statements are the opposite; they focus the conversation on the other person. Generally speaking, we spend a lot of time using 'I' statements; we like to talk about ourselves because it's familiar or what we know and we're often telling stories about ourselves or our lives. This doesn't make you self centred or selfish, it's very normal and a natural way of connecting and communicating with others. It's important.

The reason this conversation strategy doesn't work when listening to someone who is struggling is that it implies just the opposite, that someone isn't listening or understanding them. That's why it can feel unnatural or clunky at first. You're overly aware of not starting your sentences with 'I' and all of a sudden you're keenly aware of just how much you do it. 

In supportive conversations, if you use too many 'I' statements, you run the risk of making the other person feel more disconnected. Your conversation will tend more to discussing yourself, how the situation impacts you, what you can offer or what you have been through. And yes, all these things have a place and I would never advocate that someone invalidate their own feelings to support another person. But you need to decide what the purpose of the conversation is. Are you chatting to someone about their struggles because you want to help them? Or do you want them to know how this makes you feel? Chances are, you want to help. So let them speak, and ensure your statements contain 'You' not 'I'.

It's also important to remember that 'I' statements don't promote the type of conversation you are trying to have in this context. You are trying to get someone to access their own feelings and emotions and create a space for them to speak about themselves and what they're going through. That is less likely to happen if the conversation doesn't focus on them.

Here are some examples of 'You' statements:

You are doing a great job at coping with this.
Is there anything you need?
You will get there, even if it doesn't feel like it.
How does this make you feel?
Are you okay?
Do you feel safe?
What do you think we can do to help you?

'I' statements would look something like this:

When I went through a hard time, I used to run every day. It really helped me.
I just feel like it doesn't have to be this hard
I totally get what you're saying.
I used to do breathing exercises.
Trust me, I know.

The difference between these two conversation styles is that the 'I' statements tend to shut down the conversation or diminish the understanding between the two people. Whereas, 'You' statements promote conversation and understanding through the act of listening and encouraging the other person to speak and explore their feelings. 

It's also important to remember that when someone is struggling, they really do feel alone in their pain and that it is totally unique to them. I both agree and disagree with this. I think that pain, no matter where it comes from, is pain and that if we can access this in ourselves, we can start to understand what others are going through. But on the other hand, you can take two people who have been through the exact same stressor and they will experience that differently. What I remind myself is that the most important concern here is that the person feels like no one understands, and this is what we should be governed by. 
With that in mind, you need to consider whether speaking about your own pain is even helpful. In my experience, it rarely is. You run the risk of saying "I understand, it's like this time I went through..." and you try to explain to the person why their situation is similar to yours. I can almost guarantee that the story will not resonate with them and may leave them feeling more alone and less understood.

Sharing similar experiences has a place in connecting with others. But I believe that a greater amount of discretion is needed around this. Reflect on when and how this should be shared with someone, and before you do, just think about what you're hoping the person will get out of your experience.

I want to share a brief story about a father and a daughter I observed one day. They met at a cafe and I was able to learn that the daughter, who was about 16 or so, was going between her mother and father due to divorce. Both parents were there, but tense, and the father did most of the speaking. The young girl was clearly going through a challenging time, this was something I was even able to pick up, and she was meeting with her parents to discuss some ways she could start to work on things.
She barely made eye contact with her father and spoke with a very soft voice, when she did at all. The reason I took note of this interaction was because her father spoke almost consistently the whole time without interruption. I'm not saying he wasn't trying to help or was being aggressive or dismissive, but everything that came out of his mouth started with 'I'. They were statements that I could tell came from a good place, he was trying to help. But unfortunately he gave his daughter no opportunity to speak and he made the conversation entirely about him, without even meaning to.

This is how critical it is to be mindful of the types of statements you use when you trying to help someone. I still do this when I talk to Jared when things are particularly tough - not in every day life. But when things are tense and you want someone to open up to you, you need to measure your words and be aware of just how much you talk about yourself, versus encouraging them to talk about themselves. 

It's also important to note that we are only human and that it isn't always possible to execute the best words of support in the best way. Believe me, I make mistakes all the time. But that's also how I am able to see how helpful the right type of conversation can be.
If you don't get it right, don't despair - it doesn't mean that the support is meaningless.

Any conversation is better than none. 


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