How to Talk Respectfully
(And Invite Respectful Responses)
Illustrating Skill #3
An I-message is a message in which I tell you something about myself, like “I thought it was best for me to leave when I did.” Or, “I left when I did because I didn’t want to be late for my appointment.” Or, “I left when I did because I was feeling uncomfortable.” It amounts to a bit of self-disclosure. The subject of the sentence is always “I.”
The person who hears the I-message knows I am talking about myself, not about him, and therefore it’s highly unlikely that he’ll feel attacked or criticized by it. He may not like my decision to do what I did, or he may disagree with my reasons for doing it, or he may be disappointed by what I did. But he won’t feel personally attacked or criticized, because I’m talking about myself, not about him. I am putting the responsibility for my behavior, my thoughts, and my feelings squarely upon myself.
This is very different from a “you-message,” in which I say something about you. A “you-message” is not necessarily an attack on the other person, of course, and can in fact be quite complimentary, as when Mom tells her 13-year-old son, “You really look nice in a coat and tie.”
However, problems arise when I use a critical “you-message” instead of an “I-message,” as in “I left because you embarrassed me.” Or, “I swore at you because you insulted me.” In these cases I am blaming you for what I did. There’s a good chance you’ll feel attacked and get defensive, and object to what I said, and respond with something like, “How could you have been embarrassed by that?” Or, “I didn’t say anything to insult you!” We’re now on the verge of an argument.
When the subject of the sentence is “you,” there is a chance for trouble. Even compliments can be taken for something else. The son might think, “She’s lying. This dumb suit sucks. I look stupid in it and she’s just saying that cuz she’s my mother. Maybe she’s trying to butter me up for something.” Still, if compliments were our biggest worry with you-messages, there probably wouldn’t be much trouble with them. The trouble is those you-messages that have a bite, like criticisms, orders, threats, and all the other “invitations to trouble” parents use daily without even realizing that they may be assaultive to the child.
(A reminder: from a grammatical standpoint, all orders or commands are you-messages because the understood subject of the sentence is “you,” even if it’s not spoken, as in the following examples: “Mary, take the garbage out.” “Pick up your toys.” “Get ready for bed.” “Do your homework first.” “Turn out the lights.” “Don’t go out without a jacket.”)
Parents in my classes often express amazement at the “invitations to trouble” because they use them everyday when talking to their kids, and they just come out so naturally. They will often ask, “How are we supposed to talk to them if we can’t say these things?” Or they’ll say, “If I couldn’t say this stuff, I couldn’t talk to her.” However, that is simply not true. If you study the invitations to trouble, you’ll see that they are all you-messages, and to a greater or lesser degree they all carry a bite, or at least could be felt by the child as verbal assaults. They are all you-messages delivered by the parent to–and about–the child, and some are a little nasty. None of them is necessary. That is, the same ideas could be communicated by using alternatives to the invitations to trouble, of which I-messages are one.
The I-Message Formula
Many people feel constrained, stilted, or unnatural using formulas in everyday speech. This is understandable, because they are constraining, stilted, and unnatural. Still, they can serve a very useful function in helping us talk respectfully to each other. For example, the following formula provides parents with a way to construct an I-message that is respectful rather than offensive or critical, and therefore not likely to invite a defensive response from a child.
A formula’s power is derived from the fact that it structures our thinking. For example, the following four-part I-message formula forces us to do the mental work of thinking out how we’re going to say something personal in a way that won’t be taken as an attack, while still getting the point across.
Standard 4-Part “I-Message” Formula
1) When you (I name a specific historical event or behavior) ,
2) I felt (or feel) (I name my emotion) ,
3) because (I give my reason for feeling that way) , and
4) I would like (I make a request) .
- “When you hit your sister I feel angry because I’m afraid you’ll hurt her, and I would like you to talk to me about what makes you mad instead.”
- “When you came home late I felt worried because I thought something might have happened to you, so I would like you to get here on time, or else call.”
- “When you start telling me what to do, I feel used because I think that’s how servants are treated, so I’d like you to make requests instead.”
- “When you raise your voice like that, I feel anxious and defensive because it reminds me of how my dad used to attack me, and I’d appreciate it if you’d say that over in a calm tone.”
It is important to note that in this formula the phrase “When you……” is a subordinate clause that points non-judgmentally to a historical event–something that happened, or something that the other person said or did. The “when you…” part of this message is NOT the point that I am trying to make. For example, I might say, “When the sun is shining, I feel good.” The phrase when the sun is shining is simply a historical event, a phrase that modifies the thought I feel good. Or, “When it’s cloudy for a week straight, I get depressed.” When it’s cloudy for a week straight is simply a historical event, a modifier of I feel depressed.
It is highly unlikely that an I-message will be felt as an attack if it is delivered respectfully (as opposed to sarcastically) because it expresses 100% ownership of a problem, feeling, thought, or behavior by me, the speaker. I (the parent) don’t blame you (my child) for what I am experiencing internally. My own thoughts, feelings, wishes, “needs,” desires, and behavior are100% my own doing and my responsibility, not yours. This is a hard pill for some people to swallow. It might seem easier to blame another person for how I feel, but that is not only wrong (as in false), it’s also a total abdication of my own personal power. If I try to make you responsible for how I feel, or what I think, or what I do, I am giving my power over myself to you, as if you now have a remote control into my brain, and I’m your robot. No thanks, I don’t want to delude myself that way!