How to Use “I” Messages in Communication

Using "I" Messages to Improve Communication

Healthy communication can be a challenge in every type of relationship, especially when one person is frustrated with the behavior of another. Whether for parenting, friendship or romantic relationships, using "I" messages can be an effective way to promote constructive conversations that don't cause anger and resentment.

What Are "I" Messages?

Originally studied by noted psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott, "I" messages are designed to be less provocative than those starting with "you." In essence, the speaker addresses undesirable behavior on the part of another using words that are less accusatory and more likely to promote a more empathetic response. For instance:

  • "You never listen" vs. "I feel unheard, can we talk?" 
  • "You never help around the house" vs. "I feel overworked and would really appreciate some extra help." 
  • "You don't understand how I feel" vs. "I feel misunderstood, and it makes me feel upset.

  

Whether it's a child, co-worker or partner, when we begin certain statements with "you," we tend to put people in defensive positions. On the other hand, "I" messages can be used to convey feelings, concerns, needs and expectations without making the other person feel attacked.

How to Create an Effective "I" Message

An effective "I" message will place the responsibility and focus on the communicator instead of the message's recipient. Since you are less likely to alienate the other person, you are much more likely to have a favorable outcome that leads to better understanding and positive change.

Most effective "I" messages will include three elements:

  • How I feel about certain behavior
  • A description of the behavior in question
  • The tangible effects of the behavior

  

So, a basic example would look something like this:

  • "I feel (express your feeling) when you (describe behavior), because (explain how behavior impacts your feelings or well-being). 

  

Obviously, the message can have subtle variations based on the unique circumstances surrounding a person or event. That said, it should not include any accusatory phrasing that is likely to elicit anger, shame or defensiveness.

For example, consider the following sentence: "I feel upset when you get bad grades, because it makes me worry about your future." While this sentence is technically in line with the basic "I" message format; it is also likely to make the receiver feel ashamed, angry or defensive.

If you are just beginning to experiment with "I" messages, it may help to practice your conversation beforehand, so you can be sure you are crafting appropriate messages. In time, you will be able to easily speak from an "I" perspective without accidentally alienating the receiver.

A Two-way Street

While "I" statements are a great way to convey messages to others, we shouldn't view them as a one-way strategy. Generally, this communication technique works best when both people use it. See if you and your partner can both leverage "I" messages to communicate better. You can also teach your child to use "I" messages to communicate his or her feelings in ways that won't cause you to become frustrated and lash out.

For instance, instead of saying, "Lay off me" your child could say "I feel frustrated and annoyed when you tell me the same things over and over." By positioning "I" statements as a more effective way for children to get what they need and want, you can motivate them to communicate more effectively in ways that won't promote conflict.

Our caring therapists can help you and your family communicate better. Contact us today!