How You Say It Matters!

The Powerful Effect of XYZ Statements on Your Relationships

Part I | Part II

3908466919_5c461de507_oThe other day as I was leaving work, I overheard a woman talking on the phone. She was standing at the front of the bus talking loudly to her mother who was apparently upset about some comments her daughter had made to her earlier. The woman pleaded into the phone, “Ma, I didn’t mean for it to sound that way! Please don’t get offended. Please don’t be mad at me. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Ma, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” This went on for about ten minutes while the rest of the passengers watched in sympathy. Finally, the conversation ended, and the woman turned to her friend and said, “She’s crying and getting all emotional. She just misunderstood me!”
You can probably relate, as you think of examples from your life. How often do you find yourself apologizing for a statement or comment that you made? Too often, what we say is not communicated well or heard effectively by the other side. Sometimes, we say things that can’t be taken back, and such negative interactions can overshadow all the positive ones in a relationship. Case in point: The girl on the bus had to apologize profusely for one statement she made that greatly upset her mother.

How many positives do you think it takes to balance one negative in a relationship?

The answer might surprise you.

Research studies actually reveal that in order to maintain a happy marriage, couples need to engage in 5 to 20 positive interactions for every negative one. (Gottman, 1993; Notarius and Markman, 1993)

One negative = five to twenty positives.

This magical equation is not just for couples.  It can be applied in our relationships with family members, friends, classmates, colleagues, and others.

Two Needs in a Relationship

In any given relationship, we have two needs: to talk, and to be heard. We expect to be able to freely express how we feel. We also expect that both our positive and negative feelings will be heard and understood.

To maintain these positive interactions, it is important for us to share with others what we like and don’t like.  Generally, we tend to share more of our negative feelings than we do our positive ones since we often focus on the negatives over the positives.  We often tell others what we don’t like about them instead of what we do like.

Express Appreciation

It is not enough to be appreciative; we should express that appreciation.  We all like to know that we’ve made someone else happy. When we‘re praised, it’s more likely that we will do it again. Most of us, however, rarely express to others what we like or appreciate about them. What would happen if we actually shared that with the people around us?

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ advised us to express and show appreciation and gratitude. He ﷺ said “The one who does not give thanks for a small blessing will not give thanks for a great blessing, and the one who does not give thanks to people will not give thanks to Allah.” (Abi ad-Dunya)

Make it part of your daily routine to praise something about your loved one: maybe when he cooks a delicious meal or when she‘s been awake all night caring for the baby. This will only increase the positives in your relationships and make it easier to move beyond the negatives.

Share Concerns

It is also important to share our concerns instead of ignoring them.  Putting aside our disappointment and anger doesn’t make them disappear.  These feelings remain – brewing, festering, and waiting to explode during the next emotional spatter.  We need to be able to share our concerns constructively, and to have the other side hear us without making assumptions about our intentions.

How Do You Communicate?

Take a minute to reflect.

  • Think about one thing you appreciate or admire about your mother, father, sibling, spouse, child, friend, colleague, or others.
  • Think about one thing you don’t like or is concerning to you.

How would you express it to them?  Verbalize it. Is it easy to communicate?  How might they react?

Formula for Success: The XYZ Statement

Developed by PREP*, the XYZ Statement is a simple formula that will have a powerful effect on your relationships.  It’s a great way to ask for what you want and to encourage others to change because it includes information that can be implemented.

To communicate effectively, just follow this guideline the next time you want to express appreciation or share a concern:

  • When you did X,
    • Describe the specific behavior. What was the one thing he/she did?

(This implies change can happen.)

  • In situation Y,
    • Describe the specific situation or circumstances.

(It’s not everything that is a problem.)

  • I felt Z.
    • Tell how you felt or were affected.

(Own your reaction.)

Good Examples of XYZ Statements

Ÿ  When you made dinner (X) today (Y), I felt really special (Z).

Ÿ  When you ignored me (X) last night (Y), I felt hurt and disappointed (Z).

Ÿ  Thanks for babysitting the kids (XY). I feel so pampered (Z).

Ÿ  I felt so humiliated (Z) when you yelled at me (X) in front of your parents (Y).

Ÿ  When you showed up 15 minutes late (X) for our appointment with the imam (Y), I was very embarrassed (Z).

Bad Examples of XYS Statements

ŸWhen you leave your dishes in the sink, I feel like you are a slob.

Slob is not a feeling; it’s name-calling.  Instead of addressing the behavior that you dislike, you’re basically implying that it is part of their character and that they can’t change.

Alternative: It bothers me when you leave your dishes in the sink without washing them.

Ÿ You never listen to me when I talk.  You’re so inconsiderate.

Don’t over generalize and disregard the past.  Using phrases such as “you always” or “you never” implies that the issue is so big that it can never change.


Alternative: When you watch TV while I’m talking, I don’t feel heard or understood.

Ÿ  When we went out to dinner today, I know you didn’t want to go anyways.

Don’t assume you know what the other person is thinking or intending.  You fuel your own anger when you assume negative motives.


Alternative: When you hesitated, I wasn’t so sure that you wanted to go.

In the bad examples above, the focus is placed on others instead of on ourselves, making it more likely that we will receive an angry and defensive reaction.  Let’s take responsibility and focus on ourselves first.

A Better Way

Remember your earlier statements?  Change them now to XYZ Statements.  Do you see a difference between your XYZ statements and the earlier ones?  Is it easier to communicate?  Will the reactions be different?

XYZ statements are more specific, and result in greater awareness about needs, wants, and desires.  They emphasize our experiences and feelings.  Most of us don’t like hearing something negative about ourselves, but XYZ Statements make it easier to raise concerns in a gentle, respectful, and honest way.  When we know how certain behaviors affect others, we are more motivated to change and more likely to accumulate positives than negatives!  Let’s work on increasing those positives!


This material was adapted from the leading divorce-prevention/marriage enhancement program called PREP© (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program), and the corresponding book 12 Hours to a Great Marriage by Markman and Stanley.

About the author

Amal Killawi

Amal Killawi

A Detroit native, Amal Killawi is a Clinical Social Worker with a specialization in mental health and marriage education. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan, where she is also currently pursuing a Certification in Sexual Health. She is also a researcher focused on addressing health disparities among American Muslims and providing patients with culturally-competent care. Currently, she is employed as a researcher focused on addressing health disparities among American Muslims and providing patients with culturally-competent care.

Amal’s past experiences include working as a counselor at the University of Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services and ACCESS, the largest Arab American social service agency. She has also served as a case manager and community educator for Muslim Family Services, editorial assistant for the Journal of Muslim Mental Health, and research coordinator for a study on domestic violence in the Arab American community.

As a community activist, Amal serves on the board of several non-profits, particularly focused on cultural competence, mental health, marriage and family life education, social services, and youth empowerment. She has been involved with the Muslim Students’ Association at the local, regional, and national levels. Amal is a fellow of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute (AMCLI). God-willing, she hopes to make a difference in this world. Amal formally contributed to the VMCounselors advice column designed to answer readers’ personal questions.


  • Excellent…

    We need more of these writings that combine between the timeless wisdom of Islam and modern tools for family and social issues. Reason for that is people for a long time think that family and communication skills come naturally and not by practice and learning, which is a myth. These things need awareness, patience, and practice. Sadly what Muslims did usually traditionally has been lost in today’s world and I would encourage any Muslim out there who has the aptitude to get into professions like human services, social work, counselling, psychology, and sociology. There is alot to do for our own community, our countries, and the entire world.

  • As salaamu alaikum,
    Jazakallah khair for sharing this article. If we could all implement little changes in the way we talk, the world would be a much happier place =) I particularly liked the point about avoiding the use of “you awlays” and replacing it with “when you”. One is a blanket statement, the other isolates it.

    I have heard a variation on this model as it relates to conflict resolution. It uses XYZ to express the feeling, and then adds a bit at the end providing an ‘option’ or ‘a way out’. I personally find that expressing yourself is only a part it— without clearly stating an option or expectation, the listening party is left “mind reading” which could be disastrous and/or frustrating.

    So the variation is called “WIN” and it goes:
    When you….
    I feel….
    I Need you to….

    It bothers me when you leave your dishes in the sink without washing them…. I would like it if you took a moment to wash them.

    When you watch TV while I’m talking, I don’t feel heard or understood…. When I approach you to talk I need you to either mute the tv, turn it off, or tell me if you would rather talk in x minutes or at abc time.

    When you hesitated, I wasn’t so sure that you wanted to go… I need you to be open with me, reassure me if you do want to go, or suggest alternate ideas if you don’t

    Hope that helps! Jazakallah khair

  • JazakAllah, very good advice that will help us with maintaining good relationships in every aspect of our lives (Spouse, children, colleagues etc). I particularly like the way in which you’ve used both research and hadith to bring the message across.

    May Allah (SWT) reward you for your efforts InshaAllah.

    • Very good advice, and may God, Jesus, bless you, as His great commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (see Matthew 22:36-39) Thanks for teaching others how to speak respectfully to each other.

  • Glad you liked the article. Jazakallah khair for the addition Yasir. It’s very helpful. Yes, we do NOT want to engage in mind-reading. That’s very dangerous! Do you mind sharing with us the reference for this variation of the model? PREP has a conflict resolution piece, but we haven’t gotten to it yet! Much appreciated!

  • Great reminder. I read of this technique in the series of books, “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense” by renowned psycho-linguists, Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin. And I believe it actually was created by the famous family therapist, Virginia Satire.

    The example in GAVSD books when making a complaint is, along with a request for a change:

    When you forget to water the plants (x), I feel angry (y), because plants die without water (z). Would you please remember to water the plants?

    And this can be used for making a complaint or a form of praise.

    And remember to make your nonverbals congruent with your actual verbals (words used), or it nullifies the entire discussion.

    And if you can only fill out X and Y – with no Z (a real world consequence), then the problem is YOURS, not THEIRS. 🙂

  • Brilliant post. It’s so true about not vocalising positive stuff to our family members. We find it much easier to complain. InshAllah I’m going to make a conscious effort from now to vocalise the good stuff. Wish me luck!

  • First, thank you for the great tips! I am going to try to integrate this approach into my marriage with my husband. I think it will solve many problems.

    I very much agree with Omar’s comment above. This type of knowledge is so important for our communities. Too often we as humans (and especially spouses) get lured by Shaytan to resort to effortless, primitive ways of communicating – which include namecalling, fighting, yelling, or cutting a person off. We have a similar need for Muslims to become trained counselors so that affordable and convenient counseling is available for Muslims who are having communication problems. To the author of the article – I encourage you to publish a book about this topic.

  • Assalamu Alaikum

    MashaAllaah, excellent article Amal. May Allaah reward you for your efforts. InshaAllaah we can implement this very needed tactic!

  • I have tried using xyz method and found u have people who will still be in denial or choose to be ignorant of your needs. Xyz does not work on a person who is selfish or has pride or ego bcos they have to accept your feelings or that there is some problem and try and change.

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