THE “I” MESSAGE
Donald A. Cadogan, Ph.D.
Disagreements are normal in all human relationships, even the best of them. Fighting all the time, of course, would be a sign of major disharmony. But occasional spats are inevitable. This is especially true in close friendships as well as in marriage. The question for us, therefore, is not how to eliminate them, but how to manage them.
Toward this end, I firmly believe that the survival of our satisfying relationships requires that we be assertive. And this means that we be honest and direct about our grievances whenever possible. But the way we present our argument can make the difference between resoling our dispute, and adding to our hostility. If we want the other person to listen to our complaint and be fair in his/her response, we must communicate our concern in as non-provocative a manner as possible. And one good way to do this is by using “I” massages.
“I” messages refer to statements we make to others about ourselves, i.e., about our feelings about the relationship, or about issues in the relationship as they effects us. It is not so much on what kind of person the other is for doing it what was done, but more on how we feel about what was done.
Basically, “I” messages attempt to minimize blame by focusing on interpersonal issues and their impact on our feelings. Their purpose is to inform not to incite. When we do this right it readily leads to quick and often amiable resolutions.
“I” messages themselves usually contains four elements: (1) a description of the problem or issue, (2) its effect on your life, (3) how you feel about this effect, and (4) what you would prefer. You may be very angry about the other person’s behavior, but you remain focused on the issue you are angry about. For example, let’s imagine you are car-pooling with a friend to work who tends to be tardy. This, in turn, causes you to be late and fall behind at work. If you let your anger build up and fuel your behavior you might say, “I’m sick and tired of you coming late everyday and causing me work problems. How can you be such an insensitive jerk?” Such a comment might make you feel good for the moment. After all, your friend caused you pain, why not give some back? And indeed, your comment probably would hurt your friend. In some cases you may even resolve the problem in the process. But you also greatly risk causing anger or resentment in return, which could cause some people to be deliberately late in defiance. You may even loose the friendship entirely.
If you value the friendship, however, and wished to be more certain of resolving the problem you would be wiser to use “I” messages. In this case you would say something like this: “Whenever you are late picking me up” (description of offending behavior) “it causes me to be late for my job” (concrete effect on you). “I feel very frustrated when this happens,” (how you feel) “and I really need you to be more punctual” (the behavior you prefer). Another example of an “I” message is this. “When you cancel our plans at the last minute it’s usually too late to make other plans. I find this very irritating and really would like you to let me know in advance when you think our plans are not going to work out.”
“I” statements were originally studied by Dr. Haim Ginott a noted psychologist who discerned that statements starting with “I” tended to be less provocative than those starting with “you”. As you can see from my examples, however, it isn’t necessary to always start a sentence with “I”, but the focus needs to be on how you feel about a situation, which you clearly state, and not on how terrible the other is for causing it. Along these lines, psychologist John Gottman, one of this country’s foremost relationship scientists, points to the importance of introducing our complaints in a “softer” non-critical, non-contemptuous way if we are to obtain resolution.
It would be nice if we never had relationship problems, but we do. Learning to manage them, therefore, is our best hope. And using ”I” messages to communicate our concerns is one way to handle everyday interpersonal difficulties that does work. Communicating our annoyance, irritation, frustration and anger in this more controlled fashion is truly an effective outlet for these negative feelings. And in the process we are less likely to cause reactions that may serve only to perpetuate our problems.
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