I-messages 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’.

If you consistently use statements like:
You broke your promise
You weren’t listening to me
You’re always late

I can guarantee that these responses will provoke a defensive or hostile reaction from the person you are talking to. They will feel like they are being blamed and they will start to deny their wrong-doing and possibly start to blame back. This sets you up for a lengthy argument and continues the conflict.

With I-messages the focus is on how you feel about a situation, which you clearly state, not on how terrible the other person is for causing it. Psychologist John Gottman, one of the world’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.

So what is an I-message?

I-messages focus on what you feel about someone’s behaviour and simply state a problem, without blaming someone for it. This makes it easier for the other person to help solve the problem, without having to admit that they were wrong.

I-messages usually contain four elements:
(1) How I feel about the behaviour and its effects
(2) A description of the behaviour, what actually happened
(3) The actual, concrete, tangible effects of that behaviour on you
(4) The behaviour you would prefer

Another way they can be expressed is like this:
I feel _________________ (express your feeling)
when you _____________ (describe the action that affects you or relates to the feeling)
because _______________ (explain how the action affects you or relates to the feeling)

When can I-messages be used?

I-messages can be used to explain your concern when you own a problem. Other types of I-messages can be used to share your views and feelings when there is no problem.

Let’s imagine you are car-pooling to work with a friend who tends to be tardy. This causes you to be late and you fall behind at work. If you let your anger build up and fuel your behaviour you might say, ‘I’m sick and tired of you coming late every day 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? Indeed, your comment probably would hurt your friend. In some cases, you may even resolve the problem in the process, but you also 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 and wish to be more certain of resolving the problem you would be wiser to use ‘I’-messages. In this case you could say something like this:

I feel frustrated (how you feel)
whenever you are late picking me up (description of offending behaviour)
it causes me to be late for my job (concrete effect on you)
and I really need you to be more punctual (the behaviour you would prefer)

Another example of an I-message is this:

I find it irritating (how you feel)
when you cancel our plans at the last minute (description of offending behaviour)
it’s usually too late to make other plans (concrete effect on you)
and I really would like you to let me know in advance when you think our plans are not going to work out. (the behaviour you would prefer

What does an I-message do?

When people start using I-messages with family members, work colleagues or people they are in conflict with, they are generally rewarded in a variety of ways.

An I-message:
1. Has a high chance of changing the behaviour of another person when you find that behaviour unacceptable.
2. Protects the self esteem of the other person.
3. Preserves the quality of the relationship between you and the other person.
4. Helps the other person to understand what goes on between you better, and to improve their performance.

The following is feedback I have received about using I-messages.

Some people feel more confident and begin to get more courage to tackle complex problems. Others accept that their needs are also important and start to express them. People report standing up for their rights more frequently, as well as gaining a better understanding of what goes on in the minds and hearts of those around them.

Many people experience that their use of I-messages greatly reduces nagging and hassling. They stopped using rewards and punishments to get things done. They were not a necessity anymore. Others told us they have become more open and honest, not only with their spouses and friends, but also with their work colleagues and bosses.

Many people were also surprised to discover how often the people around them demonstrated a willingness to help, once they were told that they were hurting. And they were amazed at the ability of these people to find creative and appropriate solutions after learning they had been causing them a problem.

It would be nice if we never had relationship problems, but we do. Learning to manage them, therefore, is our best hope. Using I-messages is one way to handle everyday interpersonal difficulties that works. Communicating our annoyance, irritation, frustration and anger in this more controlled fashion is an effective outlet for these negative feelings. In the process we are less likely to cause reactions that may serve to perpetuate our problems.