Beware of the “I” Message!


When business and professional managers are asked to list their major problems at work, the one that usually comes out on top is communication.  It is ahead of employee turnover, competition and even profits. “I tell them what I want done. And there’s no follow through.”  “I said I need the reports as soon as possible and only two came in.”  “Isn’t anyone listening to what I say in the office?”  “Do I have to say everything twice?”

Divorce lawyers, when asked to name the main reason for marital breakups, cite a basic lack of communication, rather than money, sex or “growing apart”.  Spouses fail to share what they feel, want and need from each other. “We never talk.”  “We’re both busy working; there’s very little time to just be together.”  “I’m not sure he or she knows who I am anymore.” “What else is there to say? I’m too tired to even discuss it.”

As for parents with teenagers, they can be heard complaining across the land. “I can’t get him to sit down and talk for five minutes.”  “There’s no way we can hold a coherent conversation.” “ As soon as she comes home, the music’s on and she’s talking to her friends on her cell phone.” “They just saw each other ten minutes ago. Are you sure these are our kids?”

An interesting survey found that there are six main barriers to successful or effective communication. The number one offender was called the “I” message. “I said I needed those numbers on my desk as soon as possible.”  “I just can’t talk to you. I give up!”  “I want you to clean up your room. Now!”

  1. I. I. The “I” message goes forth. Sometimes, it is delivered in a peremptory or abrasive manner. Other times, it is low-keyed and modulated. The inflection and tone may vary, but the opening word and clear messages are the same. I want. I need. I told. I have to have. All translated into I am the one around here who is important. And by the way, I am also in charge.

Communication experts suggest we ask ourselves six questions:

  1. Am I sending the “I” message most of the time?
  2. Do I ask for ideas or feelings from other people? At home? At work?
  3. When others talk, so I really listen? To family? To colleagues? To friends?
  4. Do I use vague words and expect specific results?
  5. Am I willing to admit that I am wrong. With my spouse? Children? Co-workers?
  6. Are my actions consistent with my words?

These questions ask each of us to stand back and try to be objective about this very important area of our relations with other people. The answers to the questions directly affect our success or failure to live and work in a harmonious  way with our family members, friends and our work associates.

The first and second questions go hand in hand. The ‘I’ message leaves little room for someone else’s ideas or feelings. In a family, all members have thoughts and feelings.  They also have particular roles and responsibilities. Parents are usually in charge. There’s still room for involving children and teenagers, in particular, in decisions and problem solving.

“I want your room cleaned up. Now!”  Does that familiar refrain work? Contrast: “Dirty clothes belong in the hamper. Clean clothes belong in the closet. Every day, please.” Both are tough statements. The former is the “I” message. And a  one time event. The latter sets out specific acts to be followed. Every day.

Listening is more important than sending in successful communication. Listening as distinct from hearing, is an active process that involves one’s attention and concentration. Some basic guidelines for effective listening are : Keep eye contact. Ask questions. Listen for feelings. Is the other person uneasy, impatient, angry, bored with the subject? Don’t just wait for a pause to jump in with your point of view. There needs to be a response to what you have heard. Attentive listening tells the other person what he or she is saying matters to you. Here’s an easy way to remember this: Two E minus one M equals Successful Listening.  E are ears and M is mouth.

Vague language can add to “I” message problems. Parent: “I don’t want you staying out too late tonight.”  What does that mean? Are there other implied messages about where the teenager is going and with whom?  Teens guard their privacy and friendships with tenacity. Ground rules should be set. “If you’re going to be later than eleven, call.  Twelve is the outside limit.”  Of course, an open line of communication with teenagers had to be established years before during childhood. Children who learn that telling the truth will bring punishment, also learn how to become skillful liars.

One of the hardest hurdles in communication is admitting one’s errors.  People who are sure they have the one right answer are usually hard-liner “I” message senders and very poor listeners.  In families, when children can hear a parent say, “I was wrong about that”, they understand that they too can be wrong at times. This is especially true with young children who see their parents as all-knowing and very powerful. When they hear a parent  admitting a mistake, it saves them from learning to lie to cover up their mishaps and errors.

This translates later into more open communication during the teenage years, when they weigh peer pressures against parental guidelines.

The bottom line for all communication is the credibility or measure of one’s words. Are one’s actions consistent with one’s words?  In the work setting,  owners and managers earn the trust and respect of the people working around them on the basis of their honest communications and efforts toward common goals. At home, parents are warned, “Don’t say something unless you mean it.” Children learn very early, by two or three how to manipulate their mothers and fathers.  By teen years, they are experts.  “I want you to come straight home after school and do your homework or no TV for a week.”  The stage is set for much whining and cajoling when the sophomore  wanders in near dinner time knowing his mother has not followed through in the past. And it’s no surprise that the TV is on the next night. Moral of story:  Never threaten unless one follows through.

Credibility and integrity lie at the heart of positive communications. Words and actions are consistent. A climate of trust is developed in marriages, families and work settings. It’s  a Win-Win combination — rather than overusing the “I” message and wondering why you are not getting the results you want.

………………………………………………………………………………………………Joyce S. Anderson














2 thoughts on “Beware of the “I” Message!

  1. Wow!! We are all a little guilty of sending the “I” message, aren’t we? Great reminders for all of us to think before we speak. This is of course if we want desired results.

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