- Leo Tolstoy
Original Publication September 2003, updated June 2013
One of the easiest ways to defuse an interpersonal conflict is to avoid accusatory or escalatory language. One way to do this is by using statements about yourself and your feelings (called "I-messages" because they start with "I feel" or "I felt"), instead of "you-messages," which start with an accusation, such as, "You did this (bad thing)," or, "You are (another bad thing)."
The Upside of I-Messages
In other words, if you say, "I felt let down," rather than, "You broke your promise," you will convey the same information. But you will do so in a way that is less likely to provoke a defensive or hostile reaction from your opponent.
You-messages suggest blame, and encourage the recipient to deny wrong-doing or to blame back. For example, if you say, "You broke your promise," the answer is likely to be, "No, I didn't," which sets you up for a lengthy argument, or, "Well, you did, too," which also continues the conflict.
I-messages simply state a problem, without blaming someone for it. This makes it easier for the other side to help solve the problem, without having to admit that they were wrong (see also saving face).
Remembering to use I-messages can be difficult, however, because many people are not used to talking about themselves or their feelings (and in some cultures, this would be highly inappropriate).
In addition, when we are in a conflict -- especially an escalated conflict -- there is a very strong tendency to blame many of one's problems on the other side. So stating the problem in terms of a "you-message" is much more natural, and is more consistent with one's view of the problem. But by making the effort to change one's language, one can also reframe the way one thinks about the conflict, increasing the likelihood that a resolution can be found.
The Downside of I-Messages
I-messages can be manipulative, and can give the recipient the impression that it is their responsibility to make sure that the other person is always happy. In an interesting essay entitled, "What's Wrong with I-Messages," Jane Bluestein argues that I-messages "are frequently used in ways that produce negative and unwanted results." The problem occurs, Bluestein argues, when we use I-messages to try to control or change someone. For example, if you say, "I feel unhappy when you are late," you are really blaming the other for being late, and trying to get them to change their behavior. The focus of Bluestein's article is on parent-child relationships and communication, where she says that "I-statements make the child responsible for the parents' state of mind and convey the impression to the child that he somehow has the power to control how Mommy and Daddy act and feel." This suggests that power relationships affect the use of I-messages. While equals would probably understand that they are not broadly responsible for the other's state of mind -- but just need to work out a solution to a specific problem -- a child or a person who feels greatly over-powered or out-ranked by another person may not recognize that. So I-messages, while useful in many circumstances, should be used with care regarding how they are received and interpreted (see active listening).
When to Try I-MessagesI-messages are particularly useful when you are upset and want to express your feelings without escalating a conflict. They can be particularly useful when paired with active listening. If you have a sense that someone is upset with you, for example, you can start a conversation with an "I-message" such as: I get the impression that you are unhappy about something--am I right?" and then you can active listen to their response to figure out what is going on. If they make some assertions that do not jive with your beliefs, rather than arguing, you can hear them out and paraphrase or summarize their statements to show you understand their point of view. Once you do that, then you can then use a second set of I-messages to explain how you see it, and then explore ways that you both can reframe to a shared story and/or a shared solution to the problem.
Also, don't get discouraged if I-messages don't work the first time you try them--or every time you try them. Using I-messages (as well as active listening) is not a conversational approach that most people are familiar or comfortable with. Both take practice to learn--just as any other new skill takes practice to learn. If it doesn't work well, try again at a later time or in another situation. Over time, you will learn in what circumstances and with what people this skill is helpful, and when it is not.
 Jane Bluestein, "What's Wrong with I-Messages," available online at http://www.nhny.org/i-messages.htm (accessed September 15, 2003).
Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "I-Messages and You-Messages." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/bi-essay/i-messages>.