Using "I Feel" To Create Beauty Or Destruction

Colorado Thistle

If you could remove one word from your daily conversations and vastly improve your relationships and your life, would you do it?

Here's the trick: Stop saying "I feel like ... " and say "I feel ..." instead.

When we say "I feel like ... " we're not actually expressing our feelings. It's much more likely that we'll express a judgement or a demand. And in most communication, judgements and demands are ineffective - they create distance and destroy connection. Actual feelings on the other hand are effective because they create closeness, trust and intimacy. These are the foundations of actual communication.

Of course we all know this already. We've all been on the receiving end of a friend or partner authentically sharing their feelings. We've all experienced the closeness that exists when we hear "I feel sad", "I feel proud", "I feel thankful", "I feel relieved", "I feel heartbroken", or even "I feel distant".

Using the words "I feel ..." to express actual feelings is a beautiful expression of our humanity. Sharing our feelings is vulnerable, and because of this vulnerability, it opens a space for connection to happen.

But unfortunately our culture is terrible at expressing our feelings. This makes it hard for many of us to be effective during difficult conversations, and at the macro level it causes huge intractable cultural problems like systemic violence, perpetual war, and an epidemic of psychosomatic illness, among others.

As a culture, we are mostly alienated from our feelings. So much so that the Center for Non-Violent Communication publishes a Feelings List to help us complete the sentence "I feel ...". It's amazingly useful. Kati and I use it all the time as a cheat sheet to figure out what we're actually feeling.

So we're bad at expressing our feelings. But we don't like to admit it. And so we use the sentence "I feel like ... " to sound as if we're expressing our feelings when we're really not. 

I used to say "I feel like" all the time. Now I avoid saying it.

It turns out that adding that little innocuous "like" after the word "feel" is not innocuous at all. It's a verbal hack that allows us to sound like we're expressing our feelings, but actually toss out a judgement or a demand. This is subtle but powerful. Once you start listening for it, you'll quickly see how "I feel like ..." is an effective way to communicate ineffectively. At worst it's a good way to escalate a difficult conversation into a fight.

For example, "I feel like you're not listening to me", "I feel like I did a good job", "I feel like you shouldn't have done that", "I feel like Steve is confused", "I feel like I need more support", "I feel like you're being mean" etc.

Do you see how destructive "I feel like ... " is? If you look at all these examples, you'll see they are all judgements or demands. And judgements and demands destroy connection.

Don't believe me? try these two simple actions for 1 week and you'll be amazed:

  1. Stop saying "I feel like ... ". Completely erase it from your vernacular. Instead get in touch with that you're actually feeling (use the Feelings List if you need to) and say "I feel ... " followed by an actual feeling. Then stop talking. Right away you'll be present to increased connection and effectiveness.
  2. When someone says "I feel like ... " in a difficult conversation, attempt to listen to the feeling behind the words. When you think you know what they might be feeling, ask them "Are you feeling X?" - where X is a feeling from the list. And then stop talking. This is an invitation for connection. If they say "Yes" or "No I'm feeling Y", you'll instantly feel more connected to each other. The tone of a conversation shifts towards intimacy and trust when real feelings are shared.

This is a simple yet powerful change. For extra points, you could get agreement with your partner(s) and friends to abolish "I feel like..." from difficult conversations altogether. "I feel like..." is a crutch, and removing it will force you to have better conversations. Conversations that create intimacy, connection and beauty. 

So pay attention to how you and your inner circle use the word "feel". Use it to express feelings and it will open up your world.

I feel hopeful this post was useful for you, and I feel eager to hear about your experience. Please let me know how this works or doesn't work for you.

Notes: I learned this distinction from Non Violent Communication by Marshal Rosenberg. I've written about Non-Violent Communication before. It changed my life and now I use it every day.