Most of you, at some point in time, have found yourselves in confrontation with another person that left you feeling hurt or let down. And when you opened up the channels for discussion, you may have found that the arguments went on and on for what seemed like an eternity. There may have been a lot of yelling, and those involved may even have stopped talking to each other for days on end.
Such toxic conversations may have started with phrases like, “You broke your promise.” “You weren’t listening to me.” “You are so rude.” Or “Who do you think you are?!”
And I can pretty much guarantee that these responses provoked defensive or hostile reactions from your opponent. Your opponent may have felt like they were being blamed and so they started to deny their wrong-doing and possibly started to blame back. This familiar pattern easily sets the stage for a lengthy argument and continued conflict.
When people start using “I-messages” in their conversations with family members, work colleagues, or anyone they are in conflict with, they are generally rewarded in a variety of ways. Not only do the “I-messages” bring about changes in the behavior of the people involved, they also have the potential to foster positive changes in the relationships between people. Some even feel more confident when a kinder and healthier relationship pattern is used, and begin to gather the courage to tackle complex problems with greater ease. Others begin to accept that their needs are indeed important and start to express them more freely. People also report standing up for their own rights more frequently, as well as gaining a better understanding of what goes on in the minds and hearts of those around them. Many people have experienced that their use of “I-messages” in communication exchanges greatly reduced nagging and arguing. And they found it unnecessary to resort to using rewards and punishments to facilitate change. Others who use this “I-message” pattern report that they have become more open and honest in communicating with others, not only with spouses and friends, but also with work colleagues and supervisors.
Many people are surprised to discover how often the people around them demonstrate a willingness to help or make a change once they are respectfully told that they have hurt another. In addition, they are amazed that most people really do have the ability to find creative and appropriate solutions after realizing they had been causing a problem for you.
What is an I-Message?
“I-messages” simply state a problem, without blaming someone for it. This makes it easier for the other side to help solve the problem, without having to admit that they were wrong.
What does an I-Message do?
• has a high probability of changing the behavior of another person when you find that behavior unacceptable
• shows ownership and respect for self
• protects the self-esteem of the other person
• preserves the quality of the relationship between you and the other person
• helps the other person better understand what goes on between the two of you, allowing them to improve their performance
When can I messages be used?
“I-messages” can be used to explain your concern when you own a problem. Other types of “I-messages” can be used to share your views and feelings when there is no problem. However, “I-messages” should never be used to manipulate someone.
“I” messages themselves usually contains three elements:
(1) A description of the behavior, what actually happened
(2) The actual, concrete, tangible effects of that behavior on ME
(3) How I feel about the behavior and its’ effects
You may be very angry about the other person’s behavior, but you remain focused on the issue you are angry about. For example, let’s imagine you are car-pooling with a friend to work who has a tendency to be late. This, in turn, causes you to be late and fall behind at work. If you let your anger build up and fuel your behavior you might say, “I’m sick and tired of you coming late every morning and causing me work problems. How can you be such an insensitive jerk?” Such a comment might make you feel good for the moment. After all, your friend caused you pain. Right? Indeed, your comment probably would hurt your friend. And, in some cases you actually may resolve the problem in the process of this caustic exchange, but you also run the risk of stirring up anger or resentment in the relationship, which could cause some people to be deliberately late out of spite. You may weaken or even lose the friendship entirely.
Consider saying something like… “I get frustrated and upset (how I feel) when you pick me up late in the morning because (why I feel as I do) it bothers me to get a late start on my work and makes me feels rushed all day long. I would really like for you to pick me up each morning at the time we agreed upon (what the other can DO to make the problem better for you) so that I can get my work done adequately and have a smooth day. Thank you for considering my needs and point of view.”
“I” statements were originally developed by Dr. Haim Ginott, a noted psychologist who determined that statements starting with “I” tended to be less provocative than those starting with “you.” However, it isn’t necessary to always start a sentence with “I.” Rather, the focus needs to be on how you feel about a situation, which you clearly state, and not on how terrible the other person is for causing it. Along these lines, psychologist John Gottman, a respected relationship specialist, points to the importance of introducing our complaints in a “softer” non-critical, non-contemptuous way if we are to improve communication with others.
It would be nice if we never had relationship problems, but we do. Learning to manage such problems is our best hope. Using “I-messages” to communicate our concerns is one way to handle everyday interpersonal difficulties. Communicating our annoyance, irritation, frustration, and anger in a more controlled and respectful fashion is truly an effective outlet for these negative feelings. And in the process, we are less likely to cause reactions that may serve only to perpetuate our problems.
Here is a link to a great resource with more information about “I-messages.”