I-Messages: How They Help and Hurt

Nonviolent Communication can and will still be used for violence

Posted Feb 27, 2014

When I was a teen my mother taught Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) workshops in our living room. I loved to sit in and learn its techniques. PET was practical pop psych during years when pop psych was at its all-time peak, a lot of it mushy and impractical. 

PET’s most enduring legacy is the I-message. Don’t say “Would you like to take out the garbage?”  Instead take responsibility for your subjective preferences. Say “I would like you to take out the garbage.”  

Don’t say “You’re being selfish,” say “I feel put upon.” After all, you’re not the scientific authority on whether someone’s selfish. All you know for sure is what you feel. That’s the only thing you can speak about with authority.

My father liked PET too, but he was as skeptical of its formulas as he was of all formulas, mischievously probing for loopholes. “I feel that you are being a jerk,” he would tease.

I-messages live on in a pop psych approach called Nonviolent Communication (NVC). People occasionally write me in response to one of my articles about the complexities of human communication. They want me to know that NVC solves all the problems, a surefire formula or recipe for communicating honestly and ethically. 

My father isn’t the only person who looks for loopholes. Consciously or unconsciously we all do. And we find them. I’ve never met a formula that couldn’t be abused, I-messages and NVC included. Indeed, trusting a communication formula to be surefire invites abuse.  All you have to do is exploit the loopholes and say “Hey I couldn’t be communicating dishonestly or unethically. I was following the surefire formula.”

I don’t put my trust in formulas but in understanding why we want them and why they never quite work. You can’t tell if you’ve solved a problem unless you know the problem intimately. Here’s my sense of why I-messages and NVC can help but not in any surefire way, and where we’ll find loopholes whereby we can coerce within the strictures of these formulas.

  1. The last word paradox: The human capacity for language gives us a way to mark and explore levels of analysis. For example:

    He: You don’t love me.
    She: Yes I do.
    He: Look I don’t want to argue about it.
    She: This isn’t an argument.
    He: It’s futile talking about this.
    She: No it’s not.

    In this brief exchange we see a couple climbing up through levels of analysis, for example from whether she loves him to whether it’s an argument, to whether talking is futile. 

    Linguists call this phenomenon discrete infinity: For every last word declaration another word can be said at a higher level to make it not the last word, ad infinitum. The paradox then is that language affords us ways to declare last words that are never the last words, words that can’t be trumped at a higher level of analysis.

  2. The human quest for subjective objectivity: Our quests for the last word manifest as a desire for our subjective intuitions to be treated as objective fact. For last-word firmness, we automatically and intuitively translate “I want” into “You owe” and “I’m disappointed” into “You’re being unkind,” or “You have violated a universal moral law.” In religious societies, we treat our subjective opinions as revelations, exclusive insights into the way the universe works, or what God wants, as in “God disapproves of the way you’re treating me.” In a scientific culture we want nothing so much as to have our intuitions treated as scientifically proven. “Science proves what my gut has known all along,” rolls off the tongue self-delightingly.
  3. Fair-weather fairness: We like to think we’re honest and fair-minded, and as evidence that we are, we look to how we negotiate when the negotiations aren’t too challenging. Trouble is, when push comes to shove, we all tend strongly to drop our principled fair-mindedness, pull out the stops and insist on the last word. For example, we embrace open-mindedness in principle and can cite fair-weather evidence of our receptivity, but in high stakes conflict very few of us can stay that open, as if to say, “Yes, always turn the other cheek, but not now. This is an exception. This is different.” In this we tend to be hypocritical, which is why you don’t really know how fair-minded someone is by their self-reported fairness, but by road-testing the relationship in some true, high-stakes conflict.

  4. Rhetorically objective verbs: We can follow the word “I” with all sorts of verbs some implying more feigned objectivity than others. For example, “I sense that you’re angry,” implies more objectivity than “I’m feeling intimidated.” “I detect your anger” sounds even more like you’re claiming objectivity you don’t have, as though you’re an unbiased scientific instrument, an anger detector. I’ve long wanted to produce a fake scientific instrument for detecting anything subjective. An ego-meter, angometer, prideometer, BS-detector. You could peg its meter with the flick of a concealed button, saying “Let me check. Hmmm…yup, just as I suspected. My instrument reveals that you’re full of bull.” Short of that prank instrument we can achieve the same feigned objectivity with our verb choice.

  5. Mindreading rights: It’s hard to say how objective we’re being even when we say “I feel…”  We often treat declarations of how we feel as though they’re objective, saying things like “Don’t tell me how I feel!” as though the only person with the right to declare objectively how we feel is us. After all, who’s going to know how we feel better than we do? We’ve got that visceral feeling right in our viscera; everyone else is just speculating. Still, though we have direct access to the viscera, we’re also likely to be the most biased about our feelings. “Angry? Why would I be angry? There’s no rational reason to be angry here!” We say as though we’re responsible people who would never stoop to having irrational feelings. A lot of names for feelings imply we’re at fault. “Jealous??!! Moi???!! Never. I’m not a petty person.

    It’s easy to think of examples of people not knowing or not sharing their true feelings, toddlers who bellow “I’m not tired!” when we know they are, politicians saying “I only want what’s good for the country” when we doubt it, people saying “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” when we suspect it doesn’t. 

    We can loophole our I-messages by feigning emotions we’re not really feeling. For example, some people seem to have a chronic burr up their butts, claiming to feel “hurt” anytime they can get away with it. You can’t help doubt the credibility of some declared feelings.

    I once tried out all the names for negative emotions slotted into the sentence “In this relationship I’m feeling X,” for example “In this relationship, I’m feeling disappointed.” More than 75% percent sound like last word attempts to declare that the problem must be the other person. An I-message declaration of feeling is no guarantee of fair-mindedness. It’s easy to craft I-messages that make it the other person’s fault whether it is or not.

  6. Wants vs. Needs: NVC’s formula tells you that after declaring an I-message feeling you should state a need. Needs are tricky, and NVC acknowledges that, saying for example

    Needs have a special meaning in NVC: they are common to all people and not tied to any particular circumstance or strategy for fulfilling them. So, wanting to go to a movie with someone is not a need and a desire to spend time with a specific person is not a need. The need in that case might be companionship. You can meet your need for companionship in many ways, not just with that specific person and not just by going to a movie.

    Still, a need has higher priority than a want. “I need air” makes sense. You’ll die without it, so if you’re not getting any, people are obligated to jump to your rescue. It’s interesting that NVC chooses “need” then for companionship.  It implies your right to it, like your right to air.  Maybe we all want companionship. Maybe we hurt when we don’t get it. But our world is unfair. Declared rights are wish lists, often un-granted, alas.  If you want companionship you still have to earn it but society’s peculiar and unfair standards, what with all our –isms, including lookism and luckism, the general preference for the companionship of attractive and lucky people, that leaves so many without companionship.

We crave formulas because negotiation, especially when push comes to shove, can be extremely messy. I-messages are a nice try, and far better than the impossible “don’t be judgmental” so maddingly and hypocritically declared these days. It makes sense to own your subjective judgments. Saying “I think” or “I feel is a good way to preface any declared judgment.  Still, there are workarounds and loopholes.

I feel that it is best to know both our loopholes and heartfelt motivation for finding them, ways to insinuate that we have the last word when the going gets tough.