How Healthy I-Messages can Build Trust and Preserve Relationships

I have noticed that there seems to be a lot of anger and criticism in our world these days. There are many moments where civility seems to be lacking and people are attacking, blaming and contemptuous of others. These types of strong emotions are often expressed in ways that are hurtful to relationships.

There is however a much healthier and less relationally destructive type of communicating when needing to let someone know what you are thinking, feeling and believing: I-messages. (Thomas Gordon coined the term “I-message” in the 1960s when he created his Parent Effectiveness Training.) I-messages provide you with the opportunity to express your own feelings, perspectives, concerns, needs and expectations without attacking, blaming or criticizing the other person. They are stated in a manner that respects the other’s feelings, values, perspectives and rights.

 I-Messages have power to build trust and connection and give opportunities for others to change.

A classic I-message is built by describing the specific behavior that is causing you a problem, sharing how that behavior makes you feel and the impact it is having on you.  An example of the formula: “When you….I feel….because.…”:“When you borrow my sweater, I get frustrated because then I’m looking everywhere and can’t find it.”

An expanded I-message can be built by using some or all of the following six messages:

1.        State the facts, specific, objective (i.e. no generalizations or zingers).

 “You told me you were going to have all the dishes from dinner dried and put away by 8:00. It is now 8:15 and the dishes have not been put away.” 

Not: “When you act like such a lazy slob…”

2.         State your feelings without attacking, judging, criticizing, ascribing motives.

Example: “I feel disappointed when I see that the dishes have not been put away.”

Not: “I feel like you are trying to get away with being irresponsible.”

3.         Describe the negative impact, either actual or potential.

Example: “When you tell me you will dry and put away the dishes and then don’t do it, it will be hard to trust you the next time you tell me you will do that job.”

4.         Provide a fair request, describe the behavior that would correct the situation, making sure the request is reasonable for this specific child/person. Be clear and specific.

Example: “I expect you to dry and put away the dishes by the deadline we have established. I also would like you to tell me when you are done so there is no question in my mind.”

5.         Describe the positive impact.

Example: “I will be so much more relaxed all evening because I know I am all set for the morning.  I will be able to trust you more the more you carry out your commitments.”

6.         Request feedback, listen respectfully, appreciate perspectives. Accept explanations, challenge excuses.

Example: “Would you like to tell me how you feel about this?”

Example of an explanation: “I hear that the time just got away from you and that you are really sorry that you did not carry out your commitment.”

Example of challenging excuses: “I understand that people sometimes forget to do things they promised to do, however when that happens, they need to correct their mistake and accept responsibility for making it.”

In addition to feelings, I-messages can also state:

Needs: “I need the dishes put away so I can use the counter in the morning to prepare breakfast.”

Expectations: “I expect you to do what you say you will do when you say you will do it.”

Values: “I think it is important for people to fulfill commitments.”

Underlying Issues: “I wonder if this has something to do with something else going on between us.”

Perspective: “From my perspective it seems like you didn’t make this a priority.”

Wishes: “I wish I didn’t have to remind you.”

Messages: “I want you to understand that I appreciate how hard it can be to meet commitments sometimes.”

Beliefs: “I believe you are capable of doing this well and quickly, too.”

It can take a while to learn to replace what are called “You-Messages” with I-Messages because you have to pause and frame your message in the format of an I-message but they are valuable in protecting the integrity of relationships, something so important in today’s world of stress and frustrations.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Can you recall a time when you were frustrated, annoyed or disappointed in someone’s behavior toward you? How did you handle it? Did what you said cause relational strife?
  2. Picture the same situation. How could you share your feelings using I-messages?  How might doing that have impacted your relationship?