The Transformative Power of One Simple Communication Tool

Practice this communication tool that transforms relationships.

Posted Oct 21, 2018

Chances are that you've heard about "I messages."  It's not a new idea, but when tempers flare, it's very difficult to make this your practice. 

I was first introduced to the notion of turning anger into“I messages” some years back when I read Thomas Gordon’s best-selling book, Parent Effectiveness Training. I still recall the first time I put his theory into practice.

I was standing in the kitchen washing dishes when I noticed my son, Matthew, who was then three, sitting at the kitchen table about to cut an apple with a sharp knife. The conversation that followed went something like this:

Me: “Matthew, put that knife down. You’re going to cut yourself.”

Matthew: “No, I’m not.”

Me (getting angry): “Yes, you are!”

Matthew (getting angrier): “No, I’m not!”

Me (even louder): “Yes, you are! Put it down!”

Matthew: “No!”

At this point in the escalating power struggle, I remembered what I had read about “I” messages. Every “you” message (for example, “You’re going to cut yourself”) could be turned into an “I” message—that is, a nonblaming statement about one’s own self. So, in a split second’s time, I made the conversion:

“Matthew,” I said again (this time without anger), “When I see you with that sharp knife, I feel scared. I am worried that you will cut yourself.”

At this point, Matthew paused, looked me straight in the eye, and said calmly, “That’s your problem.”

To which I replied, “You’re absolutely right. It is my problem that I’m scared and I’m going to take care of my problem right now by taking that knife away from you.” And so I did.

What was interesting to me was that Matthew relinquished the knife easily, without the usual anger and struggle and with no loss of pride. I was taking the knife away from him because I was worried, and I exercised my parental authority in that light. I owned the problem (“I feel scared”) and I took responsibility for my feelings. Later, I was to learn that Matthew had been cutting apples with a sharp knife for over a month in his Montessori preschool, but that is beside the point. What is important is that I was able to shift from “You’re going to cut yourself” (did I have a crystal ball?) to sharing my own anxiety

Of course, no one talks in calm “I messages” all the time. When my husband broke my favorite ceramic mug that had been with me since college, I did not turn to him with perfect serenity and say, “You know, dear, when you knock my cup off the table, my reaction is to feel angry and upset. It would mean a great deal to me if you would be more careful next time.”

Instead, I cursed him and created a small scene. He apologized, and a few minutes later we were the best of friends again.

There is nothing inherently virtuous in using “I messages” in all circumstances. If our goal is simply to let someone know we’re angry, we can do it in our own personal style, and our style may do the job, or at least makes us feel better.

If, however, our goal is to break a pattern in an important relationship and/or to develop a stronger sense of self that we can bring to all our relationships, it is essential that we learn to translate our anger into clear, non-blaming statements about our own self.