Jobless, Not Joyless

Staying on track when you're unemployed

"I" Messages: How to Best Communicate With Your Unemployed Spouse

A simple mistake that's easy to avoid.

Communication can make or break a relationship at home or at work.  Let’s view communication from the perspective of the sender and receiver.  How often as a sender of a message have you had to say: “That isn’t what I meant.”  Sometimes the message we try to send does not clearly express what we are trying to say. Examining what psychologists refer to as “I messages” versus “you messages” can help improve your communication skills.  

 I first encountered the phrase “I message” in Thomas Gordon’s book Parent Effectiveness Training (1970).  While he initially proposed the concept as a communication tool for parents, it quickly became apparent that the use of “I messages” could be generalized to many settings. 

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 An example should prove useful. A wife who is worried about her unemployed husband’s wellbeing tries to check on him by stating: “You look defeated.”  Her husband, the receiver of the message, immediately begins to defend himself.  He responds angrily because he misinterprets her message.  He feels she thinks that he has given up and is not working hard enough to get a job.  He responds sarcastically, “I’m doing just great.  I’m looking as hard as I can.” Remember, the wife is worried about her husband’s wellbeing, not how hard he is working at getting a job. Yet the message she sends arouses defensiveness. From the perspective of communication theory, her mistake was to start her message with “you.” Another approach would be to start with an “I message.”  “I’m worried because looking for a job has to be frustrating and stressful.  I wish there was something I could do to help.”  Response by husband: “It is stressful, but your offer to help is really appreciated.”

 “You statements” block effective communication because they often generate defensiveness, resistance or anger in the receiver.  Let’s look at some other examples:

 “You’ll get another job if you only keep trying.”  Receiver gets defensive. “You think I’m not looking as hard as I should.

 “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” Receiver gets resistant.  “No I won’t. Nothing will have changed. “

 The above attempts to offer advice or support are well intentioned, but they serve to only block effective communication.   

 Recently, at a workshop I conduct for people who are unemployed, a participant pointed out that his wife was a “worrier” and frequently found it necessary to check on him while he worked on his computer.  He admitted that he often snapped, “ You keep interrupting me.  You’re driving me crazy.”  When he returned for the second day of the workshop, he pointed out that he had focused on using “I statements” with his wife.  He acknowledged that it took some effort not to respond impulsively.  

But now, instead of responding defensively, he tried statements like, “I’m trying hard to focus on searching job boards right now.  I’ll check in with you when I take a break in about a half-hour. “ His response defused her anxiety without hurting her feelings or getting upset himself.

 While it takes some practice, starting statements with “I” can eliminate unintended emotional baggage from your attempts to communicate clearly. 

John L. Manni, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist practicing in Spring House, Pennsylvania.

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