More information about a destructive communication pattern

This handout was developed to accompany a free online article, “What’s Wrong with ‘I-Messages’?” I first wrote about the problems with using this formula to try to get people to assess (and shift) their behavior in 1991. Evidence based on outcomes of using this formula has only strengthened my opinion. There are better ways to set boundaries and ask for what we want. Please see above article for more information.


Formula for expressing feelings in conjunction with another person’s behavior: “When you _______, I feel ________ (and I want you to _________)” in order to get the other person to change his or her behavior (act differently).


  • They are still “You” messages, literally (verbally) and energetically, carrying a message of blame: Your emotional state is the fault of someone else’s behavior. (“Victim” talk.)
  • They put the responsibility for your feelings and emotional well-being on someone else.
  • They assume that the other person is invested in your emotional well being and would be willing to change his or her behavior to care-take you. This is especially not true of typical playground or hallway social dynamics.
  • They give a great deal of power to someone who may not have your best interests at heart, someone who may, in fact, be hoping to cause you discomfort, embarrassment, inconvenience or pain.
  • If someone’s intention is, indeed, to hurt you, “I messages” tell that person that his or her strategies for doing so are effective and, in fact, working!
  • Few child relationships have (or should have) the intimacy required for dealing with the emotional impact of behaviors—and such intimacy is neither necessary nor relevant for generating cooperative, respectful behavior.
  • Kids who are willing to change their behavior so other people won’t feel sad or angry may be particularly vulnerable to peer pressure and often have a hard time making good decisions on their own behalf. Their behavior tends to be other-motivated and people-pleasing, patterns which carry their own dangers and risks. (See, “10 Dangers of Encouraging Obedience and People Pleasing.”)
  • There are other, better ways to generate cooperation from others, regardless of their personal feelings for you.


  • Dealing with confrontation by “agreeing” and changing the subject.
  • Requesting different behavior (or that a certain behavior stop): “Pleasse stop kicking my chair.” “I don’t like that word. Please don’t use it around me.” “Please don’t touch the stuff on my desk.” (No need to justify or explain why.)
  • Stating a preference: “I don’t care to discuss that.” (And then cheerfully change the subject, redirect discussion.)
  • Say “No.” (“Cut it out” or “Back off.”)
  • Set a boundary, using a promise with a positive consequence: “I don’t play with people who call me names.” “I don’t date people who hit.” “I’ll be happy to continue this discussion when you stop yelling at me.”
  • Simply refusing to engage or respond is also appropriate in some instances.

Note: Pleading or sharing hurt feelings only gives a tormentor more power.

Excerpt from The Win-Win Classroom: 

One preschool teacher shared a response she overheard from a student who was being teased about her hair. Imagine a three-year-old confident enough to tell her classmate, “You’re not in charge of my hair!” If we can teach children to say “When you . . ., I feel . . .”, we can certainly teach them to set boundaries to ask for what they want. Indeed, I would much rather have students who said “I don’t date people who hit” than ones who talked about how being hit made them feel…

Adapted from The Win-Win Classroom, revised edition, by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2008, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA.

© 1991, 2006, 2008, 2013, Dr. Jane Bluestein

This page is also available in French.

Click here for a free copy of the article, “What’s Wrong with ‘I-Messages’?”

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