I-messages are a method for discussing a problem with another person without making accusations or starting an argument. I-messages place the emphasis on how the speaker feels. Ideally, the receiver will recognize his responsibility in prompting the speaker feel the way she does and will make an effort to change his behavior accordingly.
Elements of an I-Message
According to clinical psychologist Donald A. Cadogan, I-messages contain four elements. They describe the problem, discuss the effect that it is having on the speaker’s life, explain how the speaker feels about the problem, and offer a solution. For example, if a co-worker in a group project is not completing his share of the work, you could address the issue by saying, “I’m concerned that we may not finish this project on time. We might lose the customer’s business if we don’t make our deadline. I’d really like for us to pull together, so we can get this done on time.” A you-message, however, might sound like, “You’re not doing your share of the project. We’re not going to make our deadline, and we’ll probably lose the customer’s business because of you.”
Advantages of I-Messages
You-messages often lead to arguments. For example, if you say, “You didn’t finish your paperwork yesterday,” the receiver might retort, “I could have finished it if you would have left me alone!” Rephrasing the statement as, “I feel frustrated when you don’t finish your paperwork, because I can’t do my part of the job," allows the receiver to save face, which makes it easier for both individuals to work together and solve the problem.
Disadvantages of I-Messages
According to education consultant Jane Bluestein from Instructional Support Services, Inc., some I-messages are thinly disguised you-messages, and can be both manipulative and dishonest because you are using your feelings to get someone to do something you want. Statements such as, “I feel angry when you spend so much time with your friends,” give the receiver the impression that he is responsible for your emotional well-being, and must sacrifice his needs or wants to make you happy. This can lead to anger and resentment.
I-messages also do not work well when you are dealing with a person who doesn’t care about your feelings, or who may be deliberately trying to hurt you. Telling a hostile person, “I feel sad when you scream at me,” might actually give that person a feeling of success, making it even more likely that the unwanted behavior will continue.
I-messages are more effective if you pair them with active listening, notes conflict resolution expert Heidi Burgess. It helps to listen to the person’s response to find out what they are thinking and feeling. It’s also important to hear their side of the story and acknowledge that you can see their point of view. Let the person know you are listening by paraphrasing or summarizing their key statements. Afterward, use a second set of I-messages to reiterate your point, and then you can both discuss ways of solving the problem to everyone’s advantage.