How You-Messages Have the Power to Wound Relationships 

In my last blog post I shared some ideas and information about I-messages and how they are effective in communicating an issue without being blaming or attacking.  I thought my readers might appreciate information about the opposite of I-messages: you-messages.

Often when someone is frustrated with another person or is having other negative feelings, they speak in what Thomas Gordon, author of the classic book Parent Effectiveness Training, calls “you-messages.” These statements focus on the other person: you should be doing this or that; you are thinking x, y or z; you are a problem. Messages like these further obscure the situation and usually have a negative impact on the receiver and on the relationship because they are assumptions about someone else rather than clear statements about your thoughts, feelings, needs and expectations.

The first type of you-messages

Following are some typical you-messages that people often transmit to their children, spouses, other family members, friends, colleagues. The first group are “solution responses,” which involve providing a solution, asserting that the person stating them is the one who is in control, or is an authority.

  • Ordering, directing, commanding: “Don’t interrupt me when I am clearly busy!”
  • Warning, admonishing, threatening: “You do that one more time and I’ll….”
  • Exhorting, preaching, moralizing: “A good friend would never….”
  • Advising, giving solutions: “Instead of bothering me like you are, why don’t you….”

The underlying messages that come through solution responses are:

  • “I understand this situation and you don’t.”
  • “I don’t trust you to find a solution; you’re not capable.”
  • “My needs and feelings are more important than yours.”
  • “I’m more powerful than you are.”

The second type of you-messages

The second category of you-messages contain put-downs: remarks aimed at blaming, shaming and diminishing the self-esteem of the other person in order to get control or to get even. None of these is a healthy or appropriate message for someone to transmit to another person.

  • Criticizing, judging, blaming: “You ought to know better!”
  • Name-calling, ridiculing, shaming: “Shame on you!”
  • Interpreting, diagnosing, psychoanalyzing, ascribing motives: “You love to watch me get upset.
  • Teaching through a kind of “rhetorical instructing,” preaching “How would you like it if I did that to you?”
  • Competing, getting even “I guess I’ll have to get someone else to do this since you really let me down.”
  • Predicting future failures: “No one will ever respect you if you behave like this.”
  • Demanding explanations “Why didn’t you think before you did that?”

The potential effects of put-downs are that the other person may feel:

  • guilt or remorse by taking the blame
  • a sense of injustice, of being misinterpreted, of having their motives ascribed incorrectly
  • unloved and rejected (often unconditionally)
  • resistance or outright rebellion – a refusal to validate the blame by complying or agreeing
  • competitive, with a “tit-for-tat” attitude: “Well, you’re not so great either, you know. I remember when you….”

By recognizing when others speak to you using you-messages, you can better understand your reactions of defensiveness, shame, frustration, anger, or betrayal. By recognizing if and when you transmit you-messages to others, you can better understand their reactions and can appreciate that you have the power to use I-messages to be fairer, clearer and less likely to do damage to your relationship. 

Invitation for Reflection

  1. How aware are you of the propensity of others in your life to speak to you in you-messages? How does it make you feel?  What did it do to the safety and health of your relationship?
  2. When you are frustrated, annoyed, or disappointed by someone, are you more likely to share these feelings using I-messages or You-messages? How might you protect the health of your relationships while still being able to share your thoughts and feelings by using I-messages?