Words Matter – a Lot

This month’s blog is a companion to, “Shall We Fight or Shall We Solve a Problem?”

 Pretend for a minute that you and your adult sister live near each other and often swap clothes.  She calls and asks if she can borrow your new sweater. You respond by telling her no because you haven’t worn it yet.

She comes back with, “You’ve always been so pickie about your things.”

How do you feel when she says this – hurt? angry? defensive? Do you have any feeling that is positive at this moment?  Probably not.

What if, instead, she responds with, “I’m really disappointed. Do you have another sweater you’d be willing to loan me?”

How do you feel when she responds this way? In most cases, probably not hurt or angry or defensive – and you are much more in the mood to help her solve her problem.

Notice the first response is a blame statement (you) coupled with an all-encompassing reach into the past (always). This type of response is actually an attack and (consciously or unconsciously) an invitation to fight.

You Messages

Whenever we begin a sentence with you, we are blaming the other for our own feelings and thoughts:  You’re making me mad or You’re just being selfish, lazy, stubborn, etc.  Even the positive you messages are all about our own feelings and thoughts: You look great, you’re so brave, thoughtful, kind, etc.

Always (and Never)

These words are  all-encompassing and most people immediately want to defend themselves (which, of course, does nothing to solve the problem).

Now the big question; “Are you using these words with your kids?”  Do you hear your frustrated self saying, “You never clean your room, You never pick up after yourself….” Or “You’re always on your phone, You’re late for everything…”

Neither of these words help to develop a relationship and when this type of interaction is the norm, can erode the relationship, eventually even destroying it.

So what can you say instead?  I’ll show you with a story a woman told me after she had taken one of my courses.  She loves this story and wanted me to share it.

She was getting more and more upset with her husband because when she was out at night, he didn’t turn on the outside light. Even though she had reminded and reminded him, she would come home to darkness and feel afraid walking across the property from the garage to the house.

She had told him it was obvious he didn’t care about her (you message) because he never turned on the light for her.  In our course she learned to avoid the you message by using an I message to replace it and omitting the never (and always). So, she said to her husband, “I’m afraid when I come home in the dark and I would really like you to make sure the light is turned on.” She was astounded when he responded that it had not occurred to him she would be afraid, and he started turning on the lights each night.

There’s something almost magical about telling the other person your feelings and then asking for what you want – all with a non-blaming, non-judging message – the I Message.  This action frees the other person from wanting to defend, thus encouraging a feeling of wanting to help.

As a teacher, I learned I could order and threaten my students in an effort to get them to listen when I was talking (this approach would work for a short time) or I could state my feelings, describe the unwanted behavior,  and ask for what I wanted or expected, “When you (girls , boys, guys) talk while I’m explaining the lesson, I can’t concentrate, and I worry I’ll forget to tell you something you’ll need to know to complete the work. Please hold your conversation for after class.”   About 98% of the time, the students did as I asked and even often apologized.

So, basically, the I Message consists of a description of the behavior not wanted, a statement of your feelings about it, and a request for what you want or expect.

“I feel so disappointed when I come home from work and the dishwasher is still full.  I want and expect you to do the job we agreed you would do.”  (or, if an ongoing issue, invite your son or daughter to work with you to come up with a solution to the problem).

“When you come home and leave your books and coats and boots scattered here and there instead of in the closet, I feel overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done before dinner. I expect you to take care of these things just as soon as you come home.

“When you guys fight while I’m driving, I feel scared because I can’t concentrate on my driving. I really need you to hold your angry feelings until we get to the store’s parking lot, and then we can all work on solving the problem together.”

“Does this work?”  Usually, but not necessarily right then and there. It works to promote a change in behavior and it works to build and maintain a positive relationship. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum though. This is a strong foundation, and along with the other interpersonal skills, models a process for taking responsibility for our own thoughts and feeling, thus freeing the other person to do the same rather than defend themselves.

It helps to remind ourselves that each child has his/her own timetable for learning. Just because we “covered” something doesn’t mean the child has learned it. Teaching is a process that takes place over time. It is amazing, though, how responsive kids become when we describe their behavior without judgement and state our feelings.

How might you respond to your child by using an I Message in each of the following situations?

  1. Your four-year-old has scribbled with his new crayons all over his bedroom wall.
  2. Your teenage daughter borrows your light blue cashmere sweater without asking, wears it to a party and spills cranberry juice all over it. Then she just throws it into the laundry where you find it.
  3. Your eighth grader wants to go to a party that he/she tells you “for sure” won’t have alcohol and the parents will “definitely be home,” but when you call the parents to learn the details, they know nothing about a party.
  4. Fill in a personal experience with your child/adolescent.

Feel free to check out your thinking  by emailing me at Dr.j@responsiblekids.org

Copyright 2018   Judy Harmon Holmes


One thought on “Words Matter – a Lot

  1. Cherie perkins

    It is so easy to fall into the blame mode but sometimes I am successful stopping myself. I found that the “I” statements and sharing the feelings that I have when someone has done something to hurt me Actually resonates and makes a persons stop and consider

    Sent from my iPhone



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