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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 5: Group Focus Session 5: "I" Messages


Group Size: Seminar groups of 8 - 12

Time needed: one class period 45-60 minutes

Physical Set up: Seminar setting around a table.

Materials: Overhead projector or black board, whiteboard or flip chart to write it out. Handout "I" message, transparency "I" message formula.

Goal: To learn how to deliver "1" messages.

Procedure: Meet and Greet: "I wish I could tell someone when they cause this problem for me." Facilitator should start, with something like ... "I wish I could tell my department chair that he causes a problem for me when he asks for my lesson plans on short notice." Each person should contribute a problem.

Facilitator must be familiar with essential information in this chapter. Depending on the maturity and sophistication of the class consider presenting information on Transactional Analysis. You can skip TA however and go right into "I" messages.

Demonstrate an "I" message to the group. Distribute the handouts for "I" messages. Have students read handout in class. Then divide into small work groups. Practice designing "I" messages either individually or in the group.

Follow Up: Each student in turn should plan, practice and deliver and "I" message with the class helping evaluate how effective the message would be.

Reflection: Write the "I" message that would be appropriate for you to give to the person who caused the problem you identified in today's meet and greet activity.

If possible, deliver the "I" message and describe what happened.

"I" messages
The three part message consists of describing a behavior, then stating an event that is a direct consequence of the behavior, and finally expressing a feeling that results from the event.

     1                                       2                                   3
Behavior                     Event                    Feeling

1. A behavior that causes problems is inserted here. The behavior must be specific and incontrovertible. If there is disagreement about whether the behavior actually occurred or if the right parties are not included the effect of the "I" message will be minimized.

Behavior examples
When you are my lunch.

When you gave me eight hours of calculus homework
When you call me a nerd

2. An event specifically related to the problematic behavior is inserted here. The event should be something that is easily identified and would be agreed to by both communicators. It is very important that the behavior and the event immediately linked and that the event be something that occurred as a direct result of the behavior.

Event Examples
I had nothing to eat.
I had no time for myself on Saturday
Other people heard it

3. A feeling word that was triggered by the event and is non-threatening to the person being given the "I" message.

Good Feeling Words                      Bad Feeling Words
Hungry                                          Angry 
Overwhelmed                                 Upset 
Embarrassed                                 Like I want to get even

Got the idea??

Now let's put the "I" messages together.

1. Bill, when you ate my lunch, I had nothing to eat, and I was hungry.

2. Mrs. Smith, when you gave me eight hours of calculus homework, I had no time for myself on Saturday, and I was overwhelmed.

3. Karen, when you called me a nerd, other people heard it, and I was embarrassed.

So what do Bill, Mrs. Smith and Karen say now that the "I" message has been delivered? If they are adults, (remember that this is not as a result of age or maturity but in an adult TA state, and if we have correctly delivered the message), hopefully they will see the problem from an adult perspective.

The listener mayor may not change their behavior but, now there will be room for continued discussion like ....

"Gee, I am sorry I ate your lunch. I won't do it again."
"It really took you eight hours to do your calculus homework?"
"But you are a nerd."

Ah, so then what about when the person we are dealing with is not acting like an adult? Karen is not acting logically or reacting from an adult perspective. So what do we do?

We simply repeat the "I" Message exactly as first delivered.

"Karen, when you called me a nerd, other people heard it and I was embarrassed."

We give Karen another chance to act in an adult state. In fact, we give her up to three chances to act like an adult. If she is not insistent on acting like a child, most likely she will respond as an adult by the third time, which seems to be the charm.

But if she doesn't, then most likely the fault lies in the message or possibly in the receiver not being in an adult state. We can wait for the other person to move into an adult state or move on to conflict management is, after all, the adult thing to do.

A few "I" Message reminders and tips: 
  • Use the script when practicing "I" messages.
 • Practice delivering "I" messages. Practice on a partner. 
 • Use the person's name to begin the message. People like hearing their names. 
 • Deliver "I" messages one to one, never in public. 
 • Never deliver an "I" message when you are angry.

"I" messages do not have to be done by any particular person, or even the person most concerned about the behavior. They can be delivered by any person, observing the problematic behavior who would like to improve the communication or change the behavior.

Consider this "I" message for Karen.

"Karen, I was in calculus class when you called Barbara a nerd. (behavior) I overheard you say that (event) and I was embarrassed."(feeling)

The most effective "I" message is a positive one. We know that positive reinforcement works much better than negative reinforcement. Try to catch people doing things right, and let them know they were observed. Congratulate them and watch the behavior continue to change for the better. For example we notice that Karen has stopped insulting Barbara. We need to compliment her behavior.

Try this one-

"Karen, I noticed you went a whole week without calling Barbara any names. (behavior) Class is much less stressful now (event) and I am very proud of you! (feeling)

Positive "I" messages are the most powerful communications tool known to humankind!

"I" messages

When you __________________ (Behavior)

____________________ (Event) Happens

and I feel ___________________ (Feeling).

Remember that positive "I" messages work better than negative "I" messages.

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