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Communication Tool #1: The I-Message

When you need to express yourself about something that matters to you, and you want your listener to hear it without feeling too defensive, there is a brilliant formula for speaking up for yourself. If you take courses in communication, mediation or negotiation, this tool will be part of your classes. This is my short explanation of the "I-Message."

Speak for Yourself

This formula will show you how to do just that. The goal is to limit your words to speaking the most true statements about you and you only. You will not speak about the other person, and therein is the magic of the I-message.

The I-Message

The I-message is focused on speaking about yourself only. It goes like this:

For example, if your roommate is playing loud music and you don't like it, this would be an effective i-message.

Getting it Right

Getting it Wrong

Usually, we don't say that. If I was feeling really annoyed, I might just blurt out a you-message instead:

My roommate will probably feel defensive and argue or ignore me.

Now look at the difference between the two versions.

  • The i-message cannot be argued with because it makes statements about yourself that you would know for sure. A reasonable person would not argue that you feel something.

  • A you-message offers two chances for your listener to argue, once for the judgement about "blasting" and once for the accusation of not caring

  • The i-message is more true; a statement of facts

  • The you-message is an opinion about the other person

The Advanced I-Message

Since your i-message might convey a negative feeling, it will help to express what you are hoping for, what you need instead. Add on a statement about what you need or intend so it comes out like this:

For the loud music situation, it would go like this: "When I can hear your music in my room, I feel distracted about getting my work done."

Saying this turns the focus from your complaint about the music to something practical that you are trying to do. Your friend may find it easier to understand why you are complaining and be willing to help.

Ways to use the I-Message

To Make a Complaint

  • "When I see these unwashed dishes taking up the counter space, I feel frustrated about being able to work in the kitchen. - Don't say "This kitchen is a mess because you are a slob."

  • "When we show up late for an event, I feel embarrassed about people thinking we don't care enough to be on time. - Don't say, "When you make us late all the time, I feel like you don't care."

To Reconcile after an Argument

  • "After our disagreement last night, I feel discouraged. I want us to have a good time and enjoy being together." - Don't say, "You were so mean to me last night, you made me mad and ruined everything.

  • "When I think about what I said to you, I feel sorry about how the argument got carried away."

To Ask for Something

  • "When we go for a walk or lunch together, I start to feel more connected in our relationship." - Don't say, "You should go out with me more often instead of just acting like you don't care about me."

  • "When I tell you about my day, I like it if you listen and let me finish the story." - Don't say, "When you interrupt me all the time, I feel like you think you know everything."

To Give a Compliment

  • When I tasted this soup, I was impressed with the seasoning and choice of ingredients." - Don't just say, "you are awesome at cooking."

When Feelings Aren't Welcome

Sometimes when you are in a masculine or production-oriented environment, talking about your vulnerable feelings does not go over well. In that case, you can still express feelings in an assertive way.

For example, when your associate cancelled a project but didn't tell you until after all your planning work was done, you could make an assertive i-message. It will not contain "I feel," but it will still convey your important feelings.

"When I found out this was cancelled without letting me know, I was surprised and confused about how we can work together going forward."

Yes, this could be somewhat provocative, but you may find it much better than staying silent or accusing your associate of something.

A Sneaky Way of Accusing?

I-messages can contain accusations that promote defensiveness or argument, especially with tone of voice and body language. Consider this one:

"When you didn't put me on the team, I felt rejected."

Try saying that out loud with an accusing tone. Try saying it with a gentle tone. It can be an accusation or just a natural expression of what you felt.

A father might say this to their child:

"When I saw you got a B in math, I was disappointed."

Depending on the situation it might be harmless, or it might be part of a crushing delivery of disapproval from an unrelenting parent.

When i-messages get used for accusing or demeaning people, they fail to build understanding or relationships.

Why This Is Hard

Coming up with the right feeling word can be tricky, especially in the heat of the moment. It is easier to say "I feel like you don't care," which actually just means "you don't care." It takes some thought to think of the right word to describe how you actually feel, such as disrespected, lonely, disappointed or confused. You might need to think about feeling words in advance or look at this printable feeling wheel.  

Not a Cure

Using an i-message will not always solve your relationship issues. It is a way to start expressing yourself truthfully without creating defensiveness in your listener. Sometimes that is all you will get, satisfaction from having made your stand. To build understanding you will need Brilliant Communication Tool Number 2: Active Listening.

Dixon Zalit is a counsellor in Vernon BC, offering counselling for stress and anxiety, relationships, and other self-management topics.



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