SEL Tip: Creating Effective “I Messages”

"I Messages" are a great SEL tool for conveying our emotional needs. But sometimes they can be used to make accusations. We can prevent that from happening with this simple tweak in the I Message format. 

Which is a more effective way for you (or your students) to communicate your frustration with someone?

A.  “You’re always interrupting me! You think your opinion is more important than everyone else’s.”

B.  “I feel frustrated when you interrupt me because I really want you to hear what I have to say.”
If you said B, you chose the “I Message.” I Messages are a basic tool of social and emotional learning. They encourage us to speak from our own experience rather than attributing negative behaviors or intentions to others. In doing so, we can powerfully and peacefully convey our emotional needs. Many of us are familiar with the basic form of an I Message:

I feel describe feeling
when you describe situation
because I explain the impact of the behavior.

But if you’ve encouraged your students to use this form of the I Message, you may have noticed that sometimes it doesn’t have the intended effect. It is quite common for kids who are introduced to the I Message to use the form above to create messages that are essentially accusations with a feeling word tacked onto the beginning. For example:


I feel mad
when you take my pen
because you always do that!

This statement is not an “I Message” at all, but an accusation. As the accusative voice often leads us towards creating statements of blame, the use of the word “you” in the second line of an I Message can easily trip anyone up. Semantics are powerful!
One way to make sure that our I Messages truly convey the feeling, describe the situation, and explain the impact of the behavior is by removing the “you” in the second line. If we remove the “you,” we force ourselves to really think about the situation and the impact of the behavior separate from the person. The separation of the person from the problem is a basic tenet of conflict resolution and can help us create more effective I Messages.
A simple way to make this adjustment is to replace the word “you” with words like “anyone,” “someone,” “my table mates,” “my friends,” “people I am close to,” or “my family.”  A rewrite of the above message might be:

I feel mad
when my table mates take the pen I was using
because I still need it to finish my work.

When we remove the accusative voice, we end up focusing much more clearly on the description of the situation and the impact the behavior had on us. In other words, we clarify our needs and give the listener all the information they need to empathize with us.
When we make this effort, we take the receiver of our message out of the accusative spotlight and allow them to simply listen, without judgment or accusation, to the impact of their behavior. And that gives us a better chance of having our message heard.


Kristin Stuart Valdes is Senior Program Manager at Morningside Center.