The Problem with “I-messages” – Even effective tools can be misused and made ineffective.

“In many ways, effective communication begins with mutual respect,
[it’s] communication that inspires, [and] encourages others to do their best.”
— Zig Ziglar, one of the world’s most successful motivational speakers

What it’s Like Being Raised with Traditional I-messages

You might know that I’m a second-generation parenting educator. So while I was growing up, my parents taught parenting classes at our church, where my mother was the Director of Christian Education. Like all parents, they had their own upbringing and parenting programming, which subconsciously influences our parenting.

I helped them create audio vignettes where I’d get to be a snotty-nosed bratty kid and then they’d demonstrate some communication or behavioral discipline tool. So I got to learn effective parenting as my “first language,” with skills such as I-messages, reflective listening, and problem-solving.

There were times, however, when my parents would open their mouths, especially if they were upset, and their subconscious parenting programming would come through in their communication formulas. Specifically, they would sometimes use I-messages to blame (“When you…”), shame (“…I feel disappointed), or guilt-trip me (“…because I know you can do better than that.”)

Or their I-message would go on…and on…and on…like any other lecture that makes children and teens roll their eyes and become parent-deaf.

Effective Tools, when Misused, Can Become Ineffective

So when I was writing The Parent’s Toolshop® book, I took this first-hand experience into account to propose shorter, more-effective communication tools. I didn’t see a need to throw out the pieces of communication that were effective, just the lengthy formulas and to offer some tips for avoiding blame, shame, guilt, and lectures.

I also found, after teaching hundreds of parents the first ten years of my career, that it mattered when to communicate. When parents were upset, they’d often skip over their children’s feelings, which were the cause of their behavior, and then expect their children to listen to them before they listened to their child.

There were also some “communication” formulas that skip important steps, like identifying the cause of the behavior, so you can resolve it permanently. Or teaching skills, so that behavior doesn’t happen again. Or they jump right to discipline, which often comes off disrespectfully and can escalate the problem into a power struggle or hurtful conflict.

WHAT to Say Instead

What resulted was the creation of the PASRR Effective Response Formula where communication is step 3.

  1. Prevent the problem from starting or worsening:
    1. Describe what you want children TO do (positive requests)
    2. Teach them how to do it (teach skills)
    3. Offer choices for when or how they can do it (within bottom-line limits)
    4. Notice when they do it (using descriptive encouragement)
  2. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings (Listen)
  3. Set limits & express concerns (Speak) (What this article is about.)
  4. Redirect problem behavior (Teach)
  5. Reveal discipline (Take Action)

Each step serves a very specific purpose and works best when used in this order. So that’s when to communicate.

HOW to Communicate: Compare the Formulas

Now, let’s talk about how to communicate. When you speak to others, especially about a concern you have, you want to do it respectfully, clearly, and concisely, without blame, shame, or lectures. This is because blame causes defensiveness, shame causes harm to a person’s self-esteem and is a toxic emotion, and lectures cause people to stop listening. None of those are healthy or helpful outcomes.

In the past 50 years, there have been some pretty good communication formulas proposed, which have good logic and intentions behind them. Most follow a simple formula:

1.    State what the issue is.

2.    Why it’s an issue.

3.    What action you want the person to take.

The positive, accurate, and healthy concept behind this formula is that you want to be assertive (not passive or aggressive), speak up for what you want or need, and do it in a way that is respectful to the other person. Here’s a presentation of an Effective Communication Formula.

With children, you also need to consider whether they know how to do what you want or need. So let’s look at some of these older communication formulas, see how they work in the real world, and take from them what’s valuable and leave the rest behind.

So let’s look at three formulas and compare them to the PASRR Formula :

The Traditional I-message: “When you ___, I feel ___, because (outcome/effect of the behavior).”

Non-violent communication (NVC) four-part formula:  

  1. Observation: “I hear you saying …”
  2. Feeling: “…and I’m feeling …”
  3. Needs/Values: “It’s important to me that … so that …”
  4. Request: “Would you …?”

Love & Logic: On their website FAQs they say, “The Love and Logic method causes the child to see their parent as the “good guy” and the child’s poor decision as the “bad guy.” () It is basically a power-and-control tactic that uses blame, guilt, shame, and restricted choices to drive children into doing what the parent wants them to do.

Now, no one is saying these techniques don’t “work,” but as Parents Toolshop® says, Just because “it works” doesn’t mean you should do it!

When Expressing Your Feelings — Traditional I-messages Miss the Mark

I-messages have been promoted to offer an alternative to more-destructive “You-messages” that attack, blame, or criticize someone else. Although the wording is different, traditional I-messages are really just You-messages in disguise, connecting my feelings with your behavior. 1

I-messages suggest that the other person’s behavior is responsible for our feelings, especially when the statements carry the implication that we’d feel better if only the other person would act differently. Do you really want to give away your personal power by telling someone they can control your feelings through their behavior? What if they want to upset you? Did you just reward their behavior? And do you want children to take on the burden of being responsible for your happiness?

What you say goes through the listener’s filters, so unless you are very clear about what you mean, you can be misunderstood. For example, certain feelings are self-imposed, like disappointment and embarrassment. Disappointment is caused by unrealistic expectations and embarrassment is caused by caring about what other people think. So to tell children “When you ___ I feel (one of these feelings),” it can easily be interpreted in their minds as, “You are a disappointment or an embarrassment.”

Many teachings say to add a request at the end “…and I’d like you to do…” Adding this can be insulting if the child already knows. To not say it when you know the child already knows conveys a non-verbal message that you trust them to take care of it. Children will actually be more likely to do it than if you make the request again, which is “nagging.”

Or it ends with “I need…,” when what follows is not a need; it might just be a want or a preference. Then parents wonder why their children say things like “I need a Nintendo.” Be accurate; if you don’t need it, then say you want it or what you would prefer.

There are other variations and brand name communication techniques that try to provide some improvement, like ending the sentence with a question or but also have some of the same effects. They are very long sentences that easily turn into lectures. In every example I’ve seen, each part  of these long statements could easily stand on its own or custom mix and match them to say only what you need to say in the clearest way possible — concisely, clearly, with no guilt, blame or lectures.

Toolshop® I-messages Use What’s Healthy & Eliminates What’s Not

What Parents Toolshop® teaches is that you can use parts of traditional I-messages (not the blameful “when you…” phrase) and NVC formula and mix and match them to suit the situation and people in it. You can see these tools in our separate article on effective communication skills.

The first time you address an issue, you want to cover bases like acknowledging the child (or other person’s feelings) and expressing your concerns. You do not always have to make a request or express your feelings; it depends if you’ve already said this verbally or non-verbally before.

After this first statement, you never repeat yourself. You might use a quick reminder or move to the next step of The Parent’s Toolshop®’s proprietary PASRR formula (see above).

Now, let’s look at some examples of “I” statements, taken from expert sources, and propose some Toolshop® alternatives:

  1. A father wants his young child to stop calling him rude names during playtime.
    • Common response: “Hey! If you call me a rude name one more time, I’m going to send you straight to bed!” 
    • “I” statement response: “I feel very sad when I hear rude words because they hurt my feelings.”
      (https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/i-message)
    • “Non-Violent Communication” (NVC) formula: I observe rude words. I am feeling hurt because I am needing to be treated with respect. Would you be willing to speak respectfully?
    • Love & Logic suggestion for disrespectful behavior: “Go on strike and negotiate for better parental working conditions. When your child asks for privileges, experiment with saying, ‘This is so sad, I do those sorts of things for people who treat me with respect.’ (https://www.loveandlogic.com/articles-advice/quick-parenting-tips#disrespect)
    • Toolshop®’s Mix & Match: While all the above are respectful and effective, they are unnecessarily long and not how people really talk. Each part could stand alone or be mixed together.
      •  “Name-calling hurts feelings and people might not want to play with you anymore.”
      • “It hurts people’s feelings when they are called names. (Don’t worry about passive voice when speaking. It helps remove blame.)
      • Can you say that respectfully?
      • “Oops! Try again, respectfully this time.
      • I love you and want to spend time with you. Can we be nice to each other so we enjoy our time together?
  1. A teen didn’t fill up the gas tank after borrowing the car.
    • Common response: “You returned the car on empty. How inconsiderate! Don’t you ever think about anyone but yourself? You can’t borrow the car for a week or until you pay me back for filling up the tank.”
    •  “I” statement response: “When the gas tank was left almost empty, I was upset because I had to stop and get gas and that made me late for work.”
      http://www.gordontraining.com/free-workplace-articles/working-together-with-i-messages/#
    • “Non-Violent Communication” (NVC) formula: I observed the gas tank was empty after you borrowed the car. I felt inconvenienced, because I needed to get gas before work, which made me late. Would you be willing to return the car with the same amount of gas as when you borrowed it or at least a quarter tank so I can get to work and the gas station?
    • Love &* Logic formula: “This is such a drag. You returned the car on empty so now you can’t borrow it. How do you think you’ll get to school and practice?” (Modified version of example at (https://www.loveandlogic.com/articles-advice/quick-parenting-tips#driving)
    • Toolshop®’s Mix & Match: Any of the following will do.
      • If you haven’t said it before, “When you borrow the car, remember to return it with enough gas for the next person.” Or “…with the same amount of gas it had when you borrowed it.” (It’s your rule, your choice.)
      • “Remember to keep an eye on the gas tank so you can be sure to return it with enough gas for the next driver.”
      • As they walk out the door before leaving, “Remember to track the gas!” Or
      • “Track the gas!” Or just “Gas”
      • “Watch the gas tank and other drivers!”
  1. Milk was left out on the kitchen table. Several children are sitting in the next room watching TV.
    • Common response: “Who left out the milk?” If no answer, “If someone doesn’t put it away you all will be grounded!”
    • “I” statement response: “When I see milk left out on the kitchen table I feel disappointed that you didn’t remember or care enough to put it away, and worried that it could spoil.
    • “Non-Violent Communication” (NVC) formula: I observed the gas tank was empty after you borrowed the car. I felt inconvenienced, because I needed to get gas before work, which made me late. Would you be willing to return the car with the same amount of gas as when you borrowed it or at least a quarter tank so I can get to work and the gas station?
    • Love &* Logic formula:
    • Toolshop®’s Mix & Match: Any of the following will do.
      • If you’ve never given information before, just say, “When milk is left out it can spoil.” Or “Milk needs to be put away soon or it can spoil.”
      • If the kids know that, say “I see milk left on out the table.”
      • You can add a statement about your expectation. “I expect it to be put away.” Or “Whoever left it out needs to put it back.”
      • Or just say “Milk!”

Read these as if you were a child (or an adult in a similar but different non-parenting situation). How would you feel about how you were being spoken to in each example?

What hidden messages do some of these statements imply? Are these messages you want to send? Are they messages that will help your relationship or hurt it?

Are any of these so long and wordy that, if you were a child, you’d be rolling your eyes and saying “I know!!” with attitude?

Your answers to these questions will help you choose which communication formula you might want to learn more about using. If you want to learn more about Toolshop® communication, you can watch 2 1-hour videos: an interview with Jody on the GLOW webinar and/or watch our detailed private-access-only how-to webinar on Heartful Communication. Use what you learn to improve either parenting or adult relationships. While you are at our one-stop library, explore our other resources and programs!

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Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens of thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.

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