“I” Message

young-man-communicating-i-messageAn “I” message or “I” statement is a style of communication that focuses on the feelings or beliefs of the speaker rather than thoughts and characteristics that the speaker attributes to the listener. For example, a person might say to his or her partner, “I feel abandoned and worried when you consistently come home late without calling” instead of demanding, “Why are you never home on time?”

Role of “I” Statements in Communication

Thomas Gordon developed the concept of an “I” statement in the 1960s and contrasted these statements to “you” statements, which shift blame and attributions to the listener. “I” statements enable speakers to be assertive without making accusations, which can often make listeners feel defensive. An “I” statement can help a person become aware of problematic behavior and generally forces the speaker to take responsibility for his or her own thoughts and feelings rather than attributing them—sometimes falsely or unfairly—to someone else.

When used correctly, “I” statements can help foster positive communication in relationships and may help them become stronger, as sharing feelings and thoughts in an honest and open manner can help partners grow closer on an emotional level.

“I” Statements in Therapy

Mental health professionals commonly encourage people in therapy to use “I” statements when communicating with others. This technique is particularly common in marital counseling, as couples often get trapped in a potentially vicious cycle of perpetual blame without ever addressing the underlying feelings or attachment issues that may be leading to conflict. “I” statements may allow couples to work through their disagreements in a way that allows them to express their opinions and feelings to each other without assigning blame and placing further strain on the relationship.

Couples in the early stages of marital counseling may misuse “I” statements. For example, a man might say to his partner, “I hate it when you do not listen to me.” Although this statement does start with “I,” it might still be interpreted as accusatory and may not be the healthiest way to express feelings. A better “I” statement might be, “When you do not listen to what I am saying, I feel ignored and unloved.” Therapists often help those they are treating to practice appropriate “I” statements and explore ways to respond to the feelings that these statements communicate.

“I” statements are often also effective in family counseling because they focus on the effects of a child or parent’s actions rather than on the action itself. It may be easier for family members to communicate when an action is not singled out for blame, and young adults and adolescents in particular may be more receptive to hearing how their actions have affected others when the language used is not accusatory.

Examples of “I” Messages

Many people do not communicate naturally with “I” statements, and it often takes some practice before a person can use them effectively. That said, generally everyone can learn to use “I” messages, including children.

Some examples of “I” statements:

  • 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!” Graphic containing sample I statements
    • “I” statement response: “I feel very sad when I hear rude words because they hurt my feelings. I like playing with people who use nice words.”
  • A woman becomes angry when her sister borrows her favorite coat and returns it with stains and a tear.
    • Common response: “You ruined my jacket! Are you ever going to grow up?!”
    • “I” statement response: “I am upset that my coat was damaged because I can’t afford to replace it. I really appreciate it when the things I loan out are taken care of.”
  •  A teenage boy is annoyed with his parents, who ask him several times each night if he has completed his homework.
    • Common response: “Lay off me!”
    • “I” statement response: “I feel frustrated and annoyed when I am reminded over and over to do my homework. I am old enough now to complete my homework without reminders.”

References:

  1. American Psychological Association. (2009). APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. I-Statements. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.austincc.edu/colangelo/1318/istatements.htm
  3. Winters, K. (2003). Family Therapy. In Treatment of adolescents with substance use disorders. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Last Updated: 02-14-2018

  • 9 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Kat

    Kat

    February 10th, 2015 at 8:27 AM

    I am having big problems in my relationship, could “I-Messages” help my relationship out? We are fighting a lot and I have been feeling Mentally abused, but i know he isn’t meaning to and it could be the people he is around that is causing these problems. Do you have any suggestions to what may help me out with what is going on in my relationship?

  • GoodTherapy.org Team

    GoodTherapy.org Team

    June 30th, 2015 at 4:29 PM

    Dear Kat,

    Thank you for your comment. We wanted to provide links to some relevant resources. You can find a therapist in your area here. You can find out more about emotional abuse here, and this page has information on domestic violence as well as links to other resources. We hope these are helpful to you.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Gabriel

    Gabriel

    October 19th, 2017 at 11:01 AM

    Mom?

  • Rebecca B.

    Rebecca B.

    October 26th, 2017 at 5:35 AM

    Yes

  • Star

    Star

    August 22nd, 2016 at 2:28 PM

    Thank you for this article. I am currently upset with a friend and needed to know how I can express this without being rude or passive aggressive and this helped me a lot!

  • stephanie

    stephanie

    November 10th, 2016 at 8:33 PM

    What do you do when you use ” I feel ” statements and your spouse still gets defensive and beligerent?

  • Kristin

    Kristin

    December 27th, 2016 at 6:55 PM

    Not sure if it’s too late to reply to this for you, but realize that that is his/her emotions and not your “fault”. Sometimes they just need to feel their own feelings and it’s not against you. Maybe suggest taking a break from the conversation if it gets heated or they are offended, but make sure you come back to it. Another thing you could do is have a journal to write your I Statements in and give it to your spouse to think through before writing back.

  • Matt

    Matt

    February 12th, 2017 at 7:53 PM

    As a middle school teacher, I am often asked what do to when the I statement “doesn’t work” and leads to a physical altercation or laughing, name calling etc. I a get the same question regarding a persistent bully. Any advice you can give on would be much appreciated.
    Thank you.

  • Leanne Strong

    Leanne Strong

    August 8th, 2017 at 11:36 PM

    Us adults often try to teach children about using “I” statements instead of “you” statements, but we often use “you” statements instead of “I” statements when talking to children. When talking to children, we should (if possible) forego statements like, “you are being………,” “you never……….,” and, “you always………,” in favor of statements like, “I feel/felt……..,” “I would really like it if………,” “I don’t like it when………,” or, “I try to show respect for your ideas and opinions, so I would like you to try to show respect for mine.” If you think about it, statements like, “you’re being…….,” “you always……..,” and, “you never……..,” are “you” statements, NOT “I” statements, and you might actually be inadvertently teaching children to put the blame on others, or call others nasty names. Statements like, “I feel/felt…….,” “I would really like it if………,” or, “I don’t like it when…….,” are “I” statements, NOT “you” statements, and you may even be teaching children (even if indirectly) to talk respectfully about what is going on, without putting it on the other person. I know that some adults might think using “I” statements instead of “you” statements with children feels like you are treating children as your equals, but you would actually be modelling the kind of language you want children to use.

    Imagine you are helping a child with homework, and the child says something like, “you’re not being very helpful. How would that make you feel? What would you do or say? You would probably feel like no matter how hard you were trying to help the child, it just wasn’t enough. You may even feel a little bit defensive, because after all, you aren’t trying to be unhelpful. You are actually trying to be as helpful as possible. Now imagine you are trying to help a child with homework, and the child says something like, “I’m still having trouble understanding this.” How would you feel? What would you do or say?” You might be thinking something like, “is there anything I can do to help this child understand this better?” You might even try to explain the question differently from how it is worded on the paper. In the first situation, the child uses a “you” statement, and you may even feel like he or she is accusing you of not trying to help him or her. In the second situation, the child uses an “I” statement, and lets you know exactly what is going on.

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