PMH Tool 8 – Asserting yourself with “I” Messages

Dr. Paul Hauck, an REBT therapist from Davenport, Iowa, USA said that whenever you find yourself in a situation you don’t like, you have four basic options:

  • Problem solve and assert yourself
  • Tolerate with disturbance (get upset)
  • Tolerate without disturbance (don’t get upset)
  • Leave

There are two basic types of messages you can use with others, YOU MESSAGES and I MESSAGES. YOU messages tend to be aggressive, not assertive.

“YOU” Messages

“YOU” Messages are statements like the following. The “YOU” may simply be implied.

  • Orders “(YOU) Sit down and shut up!”
  • Threats “YOU had better apologize or else.”
  • Putdowns “YOU are so stupid.”
  • Name calling “YOU’RE such an idiot.”

“YOU” messages are also called SOLUTION messages because they try to impose a solution on someone and take away that person’s right to freely choose what they will think, feel, say or do. No one likes to have others do that, which is a common reason “YOU” messages are ineffective, and even backfire (the other person does what you don’t like even more on purpose).

“YOU” messages are often said in anger. Anger will be perceived as a threat by others and often triggers anger in them. Anger tends to beget anger, which is another reason why “YOU” messages are ineffective. When people are angry, they will have a false sense of power, righteousness, permission, and protection. That makes it difficult to reason with them, which means you are less likely to persuade them to do what you’d like, to help in some way.

“YOU” messages typically involve some finger pointing. Pointing a finger at someone will also be perceived as threatening. No one likes a finger pointed at them.

For all these reasons, “YOU” messages are called ROADBLOCKS to effective communication. Effective communication would encourage people to empathize and cooperate, to want to help you get what it is that you want. “YOU” messages do none of these.

The best way to assert yourself if you choose to do so is to use “I” MESSAGES

“I” Messages

  • Start with the pronoun, “I”.
  • Simply give information, like what you LIKE or don’t like, what you WANT or don’t want. You leave what the other person will do about that information totally up to them.
  • If there is any finger pointing, it’s at yourself instead of the other person, because you are talking about yourself.
  • It can help to depersonalize “I” Messages. For example, to say “I don’t like when PEOPLE (SOMEONE, ANYONE) says that to me” instead of “I don’t like when YOU say that to me”. This makes it about a behavior instead of a particular person.
  • Whenever you tell someone what you DON’T like or want, it helps to also tell them what you would like or want instead. For example, “I don’t like it when people talk to me like that. I’d rather people simply tell me what they want and ask for it”.

Example of “I” Messages:

  • “I don’t LIKE when people say things like that about me”
  • “I LIKE it better when people simply tell me what they want from me”
  • “I don’t WANT to be talked to that way”
  • “I WANT you to be nicer when you talk to me”

The BROKEN RECORD technique (Lee Canter – Assertive Discipline)

This basically means that if you use an “I” message and don’t get the response you wanted, you simply repeat it one or more times and give it time to sink in, and hope that it will eventually get the desired result.

  • It’s always important to remember what you do and don’t control. You never really can control what others choose to think, feel, say, or do. The best you can hope for is to influence them in the way you’d like.
  • The impulse is often to resort to “YOU” messages if “I” messages are not immediately effective. The BROKEN RECORD technique can serve as a form of impulse control.
  • There’s an old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.

Writing Letters

Writing a letter to someone can be the most effective way to make your points and prevent a conflict from escalating as they so often do when people are face to face. People often have “ruts” from practicing and rehearsing talking to others in unhelpful ways, i.e. using “YOU” Messages. It’s too easy to plug into these “ruts” and respond in the same ways you have in the past and end up with the same outcome, an escalating, unresolved conflict. Writing a letter is a way to avoid such undesirable outcomes and have a better one. Here are some reasons why:

  • You get to read and reflect on what you say and edit it if you want to. When face to face, once you say something, you can’t take it back.
  • You get to make your points without interruption.
  • People will typically read letters, often more than once, which gives you more than one chance to make your case.
  • You should force yourself to start every sentence with “I”. Starting each sentence the same way is usually not good writing, but in this case, it can be quite effective. You get in practice at using “I” Messages, which makes using them in the future more likely to be automatic.
  • If your goal is to be constructive and resolve any conflict as quickly and peacefully as possible, a well-written letter can make the next face to face easier and more constructive.
  • Letters like this are usually so out of the ordinary that they often become keepsakes for the person they are given to.

Putting your (verbal) behavior where you want your attitude to be

In Tool 6, Correcting Irrational Thinking in Yourself and Tactfully Challenging it in Others, we talked about some simple questions we can pose to bring our THINK Thermostats down a notch. With practice and rehearsal, these questions become automatic and function like grammar check on a computer. However, there is another way to lower your THINK Thermostat a notch and keep it there. It’s by practicing talking the way you want to think. In other words, practice and rehearse expressing WANTS, PREFERENCES and DESIRES by using “I” Messages. When people set their THINK thermostats at NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND, it can needlessly manufacture threats where they don’t or need not exist or magnify threats that might be out of proportion to reality. That can cause them to become angry for example instead of simply frustrated, irritated, or annoyed. This typically results in them using YOU Messages. By practicing and rehearsing using “I” Messages and expressing WANTS, PREFERENCES and DESIRES, it can start to influence the way you think, where you set your THINK Thermostat all the time. YOU Messages typically represent a way of REACTING or OVERREACTING to a situation. “I” Messages are a way of RESPONDING in the best possible way. See the diagram below:




Anger Overreacting


“YOU” Messages






Responding “I” Messages
Don’t care Calm Do nothing Silence


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