“The Four-Part I-Feel Statement” by Denise F. Quirk, LifeSTAR of Northern Nevada

LifeSTAR has long been a proponent of identifying, clarifying, expressing and containing emotional expression appropriately.  As a therapist using “feeling statement” formulas for couples for many years, I have noticed that clients need help understanding how to use a feeling statement in the office and how to practice at home for maximum effect.
My personal favorite for a feeling statement formula is what my colleagues and I developed and used for a decade in chemical dependence inpatient treatment programs in Nevada.  We lovingly refer to it as the “Four-Part-I-Feel Statement.”  Some of my clients shortened that to “the Four-Parter.”  I have a long-form description with some details which I print on neon green paper and call “the Green Sheet,” which is included in packets with any client who I work with in group therapy.  I recently began printing the miniature version on card stock in a business-card size which I hand out and use from my desk regularly.

The gist of the formula is as follows:  “When_____, I feel ______, I want and/or I need ______, and I am willing to do______.”

The first part, “When,” is the thought, mental picture, event, or cognitive piece of the message.  I instruct clients that this brief description of what is going on in your head, which you carefully and briefly describe to the recipient of your message, is to convey a descriptive image of your thoughts so that your recipient doesn’t have to be a mind reader.  Throughout the explanation of the use of this communication formula, I stress the importance of brevity, to insure success in conveying a brief message that the recipient will be able to quickly repeat.

The second part, “I feel,” is meant to convey the emotional word or words (one or two is ideal) that the sender is experiencing and wanting the receiver to understand.  These few words are meant to capture what is happening in the throat, heart, gut, insides, core, or whatever other words one would use to describe what is happening inside the body of the person, not the head.  The first part is from the head, or the cognitive piece, and this second part is from the gut.  For those clients (which is the majority) who do not regularly use feeling words, I provide both a written and a pictorial handout of several feeling words.  I suggest that there are about four main categories of feeling words which capture the several thousand others: happy, sad, afraid, and hurt.  I suggest they use one of those until they find others they prefer.

The third part, “I want and/or I need,” describes both the wants and the needs the person has in this message.  I explain that this is going to be the hoped-for result, the desire, and the ultimate reward for taking the courageous step of fully expressing one’s thoughts, feelings, wishes, and willingness to take action.  Asking for what one wants takes a bit of thought, as you might actually receive it!  Asking for what one needs, takes one to an even more vulnerable and excellent place: which is elementary in successful communication.  It is also a gift to the recipient: it describes cleanly what the other person can do to give the speaker what is wanted.  It gives people a suggestion of a solution.  And of course, it gives the sender clarity about what he or she is asking for at the time, with added non-verbal clues about how important and what kind of a priority this request is for the sender.  The delivery of this request, I emphasize, works best in a quiet place, with direct eye-contact, spoken slowly and clearly to get the best results.  Also, I offer the ideal solution for success: be prepared to give this communication gift and the answer or response could be an immediate “yes” or “no,” which is excellent information for the sender.  Then the sender can decide whether to let it go, take a break, revise, etc.

Also connected to the third part is an ongoing exercise of clarity for the sender.  As clients use this four-part I-feel statement regularly, they discover what their feelings, wants, needs, willingness to take action, and results of asking deliver to them.  One possible result is better relationships, one is clarity about letting go of a relationship, and another is discovering the feelings of co-dependence, expectations, and disappointments that one might have been avoiding.  Lots of growth opportunities and improvement in communication are the result of practicing the “four-parter.”

The fourth part, “I am willing to do…,” is the action piece.  Many people have difficulty formulating an action statement about their part when they are asking for something.  I ask my clients to imagine a negotiating table in a business relationship, where both parties want something.  When compromise, give-and-take, waiting, clarifying, and eventually accepting occur, both parties can feel that they have “won.”  I also suggest they go ahead and ask for “the moon,” and be willing to take less.  It is important to have some ideas of what one is offering or giving up.  So, being willing to, for example, hear what the other person has to say in reply to their four-parter is a good start.  Being willing to wait for a period of time for the other person’s answer, being willing to set aside five minutes a day to practice this exercise until it feels more natural: all of these can be used at the beginning if a couple isn’t sure how to use the four-parter.

An interesting use of the four-parter occurred when I sent some parents of teenagers home and asked them to distribute the handout and practice it together once a week.  What they returned and reported to me, much to my alarm, was that their family reveled in the opportunity to use it as a hunt for problems and an attack on what was wrong with each other.  Yikes!  I was glad they at least returned and gave me the opportunity to help them hone their skills and check their intentions and instructions to their family.  These parents needed help getting positive results, and accountability and some simple rules were given.

Couples occasionally use the four-parter in attack mode, as well.  Many times I’ve heard one party say they “just want to be heard.”  It is good to practice what may or may not happen in the office, so that both parties hear me give a “no killer statements” guideline.  I do not condone, and I ask them to agree to having a rule that it is not okay to call each other names, use the exercise as a place to hurt or slam the other in any way.  Usually that is a clue to me that one party could use some additional individual therapy to process and contain his/her anger before sending it back to splatter the other person.

The most common comment I immediately hear from couples is, “This feels awkward.”   Well, certainly it will, if you’ve never used this descriptive, detailed, heart-felt and brief method of communicating before!  I give them praise in my office for practicing, give them silly and exaggerated examples so that they know it is a learning process and mistakes are actually useful.  One quick example I use is, “When I was younger and felt bored or restless, I fantasized about having a red corvette and a million dollars and was willing to rob a bank to get it.”  Good example of “be careful what you ask for.”

Perhaps the best story I can close with about the wonder of improved communication through practice and regular use of the four-parter is that of a gal who I have counseled for several years.  She drops in to an alumni group occasionally and shares how she uses the four-parter in the grocery store, at 12-Step meetings, and sometimes hands out the little card and encourages acquaintances to use it.  I have seen her progress significantly simply by having the power to clarify her thoughts and feelings and experience success in her personal relationships.

In an effort to keep up with changing times, I’m developing an “app” to be used on smart phones for the Four-Part I-Feel Statement.  Be watching my non-profit website for the Reno Problem Gambling Center (renopgc.org) for the announcement of how you can have a four-parter app on your phone, too!

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