‘I’ Messages: How Removing ‘You’ Can Change a Conversation

two people chatting on couchAssertive communication is a style of speaking in which the goal is to take care of your needs while also showing the other party mutual respect. An important form of assertive communication is known as “I” messages or “I” statements. “I” messages clearly state what you want in a way that someone will understand and, more importantly, not get defensive. When people are defensive, they may get angry, accusatory, or ignore parts of what you are saying.

When you use “I” messages, you focus on your personal interpretation. Your experience is harder to argue with because it’s yours and yours alone. Someone might not agree with how you interpreted a behavior, but they are less likely to feel personally attacked by you expressing the experience as your own. As a result, “I” messages tend to reduce the likelihood of someone feeling criticized and may increase their likelihood of changing a behavior.

Roll your cursor over the text below (or click if you’re using a mobile device) to see examples of complete “I” messages:

I feel state feeling when state the behavior because state why. I would prefer we state preference or replacement behavior.


How ‘I’ Messages Work

An emotion is one word. If you say, “I feel like you aren’t listening to me,” that’s not a feeling. Feelings may include: anger, frustration, confusion, guilt, encouragement, gratitude, happiness—you get the point. When you begin a conversation with “I feel” and then express an emotion, you are putting your perspective first. This reminds the person you are talking to that this is how you feel and not about what they did to you.

Once you have expressed the emotion you are feeling, describe what happened. Try to avoid saying “you” whenever possible. Again, this is about keeping the other person’s defenses down. Instead of saying, “I feel frustrated when you leave the dishes in the sink,” say, “I feel frustrated when I see dishes in the sink.” As another example, instead of, “I feel left out when you make plans without asking me,” try, “I feel left out when I’m not included in plan making.”

After you get the feeling and specific behavior down, you will want to explain why the behavior made you feel that way. This helps the person you are speaking to better understand why it’s so important. It might sound something like this: “I feel left out when I’m not included in plan making because I like to be aware of the schedule.”

Finally, provide a suggestion to take the guesswork out of what you need in the future. Using the last example, a replacement behavior might sound like, “I feel left out when I’m not included in plan making because I like to be aware of the schedule. I would prefer if you could send me an email before committing to our friends.” Sometimes there might not be an immediate solution, but even saying, “Can we talk about this further?” can be a good start.

The opposite of an “I” message is a “you” message. “You” messages often sound accusatory and tend to put people on the defensive. As soon as someone hears “you,” preparing for an attack is a common reaction. The goal of “I” messages is to diffuse that possibility, and instead enable a more meaningful discussion.

Here are some examples of “you” messages versus “I” messages:

“You” message: “You are always making me late for the movies!”
“I” message: “I feel anxious when I’m late for the movies because I want to make sure we get a good seat. Is there something I can help with to get us out earlier?”

“You” message: “You never remember to pick up the mail when you come in.”
“I” message: “I feel worried when we don’t have the mail at night because I want to make sure we don’t miss anything important. Could you please grab it when you come in tomorrow?”

Finally, it is important to remember that when using assertive communication there is no guarantee you will “I” messages will only increase the chances of getting something you want, but they often won’t get you everything you want.actually get the new behavior from the other person. “I” messages will only increase the chances of getting something you want, but they often won’t get you everything you want. In that last example, the person could easily say, “My hands are full when I come home so I tend to forget the mail. Could you get it instead?” That response is presumably preferable to the “Get off my back. I’m tired after work!” that you might be used to.

The true goal for utilizing “I” messages is to improve your overall communication to one of mutual respect and increase your confidence when speaking about touchy subjects. “I” messages take practice, so be patient with yourself as you get the hang of it. Over time, you will hopefully notice a reduction in petty arguments, criticism, and defensive reactions.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shana B. Diskant, LMFT, CBIS

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Joanie

    February 25th, 2016 at 8:07 AM

    No matter where you are in life there will always be those people who make everything about them

  • Regan

    February 25th, 2016 at 2:02 PM

    It can be a hard thing when you are trying so hard to describe how you are feeling to then not project those feelings onto the other person. I don’t know if that is because we are trying so hard to justify our own behavior or what but it can come off as accusatory and downright mean when you are saying one thing but then you are doing something that contradicts that altogether.

  • taylor

    February 26th, 2016 at 11:26 AM

    My mom is one of those people that no matter what I say is always going to be able to turn it around and let me know just how much I am inconveniencing her with any decision that is being made. Why can’t she ever just let go of that need of hers to have to make herself the center of everything?

  • Henry

    February 27th, 2016 at 8:12 AM

    If this bugs you, then you will definitely want to try to be someone who is different.

  • TobyG

    February 28th, 2016 at 7:24 AM

    It doesn’t always have to be fully about removing you from the conversation, but I think that there will be times if you make a conscious effort to do that there will be a greater chance that you will actually listen to what the other person has to say instead of hearing only how this relates to you.

  • tatiana

    February 28th, 2016 at 3:34 PM

    Of course there will be times and conversations where you want to sit back and listen to another. But there are times when you have to speak up for yourself too. I guess that it is best to know when is the right time for each.

  • Erik

    February 29th, 2016 at 7:16 AM

    I know that I tend to feel very disrespected when I am talking with someone who likes to make the whole conversation about themselves.

  • Lyla M.

    March 26th, 2016 at 8:46 AM

    I want to learn to communicate better and to be more compassionate.
    Compassion is about “us” rather than I”M right.

  • Fungai

    February 9th, 2022 at 8:18 AM

    Good stuff on couple counselling

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