Challenging unacceptable behaviour: the 4 part I-message

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 19) with this similar format were originally published by the now late Ivan Sokolov and his wife Jacquie Pearson under the auspices of The Parent Network.  They are re-published with the permission of the authors for which I am most grateful.

Challenging unacceptable behaviour: the 4 part I-message

When others people behave in ways that interfere with us or we don’t like, it is time to own the problem and stand up for our own rights and needs in an assertive way. Being successful in challenging someone who is interfering with your needs requires the development of the skills of self-disclosure. The first step is to make sure that the person interfering with your needs is fully aware of the fact.

It is useful to try and understand the motivation for the unacceptable behaviour.  Often the individual is unaware that his/her behaviour is unacceptable, and the behaviour is usually engaged in to meet his/her own needs.

Informing them that their behaviour has an unfavourable impact on those around them may be enough to bring about a change in their behaviour.  If not, it will initiate the chance to discuss how to solve the problem.  In challenging in the way described below we are in fact stating the problem and asking for help or co-operation in solving it.

In essence this means we are asking for help in having our needs met by the removal of the behaviour that was an obstacle to this objective in the first place.

 The aims of challenging

In challenging someone about their behaviour, bear in mind everything that you are actually trying to achieve.

You want to:-

  1.  Bring about a change in the behaviour … You want somehow to change the situation you find  unacceptable, so what you do needs to be effective.
  1. Avoid bad feelings … You want to avoid getting into fights and power tussles as you challenge the behaviour.
  1. Maintain everyone’s self-esteem … Each challenge can be an opportunity for those involved to develop good feelings about themselves, by treating each other respectfully. Labelling behaviour is one way to ensure that feelings are hurt, and that everyone ends up feeling less good about themselves.
  1. Encourage growth and development … Each time we challenge unacceptable behaviour, we create an opportunity for growth and development, by fostering positive communication, encouraging flexibility in ourselves and others, and improving relationships. We are also providing a potential learning experience for all concerned, because when the situation is resolved comfortably, it is possible that the method may be used by others, simply because ‘it works’.

Expressing yourself congruently

When others are interfering with us getting our needs met we need to be able to express ourselves in a congruent manner if we want to bring about some change in the situation.  The ability to honestly express the level of your feelings is very important in sending I-messages.

To do this, we need to be clear about the answers to the following questions.  We shall use Mary’s problem as our illustration.  Mary is fed up with picking up her children’s clothes from all over the house.

What is going on that is interfering with her needs?

We need a factual description of the behaviour, so we have to stick to what you see and hear and avoid interpretations. Mary could describe the children as messy or inconsiderate; in fact what they are doing is leaving their clothes about the house instead of in their rooms.

What effect is their behaviour having on her?

How is it interfering with Mary getting her needs met?  Because Mary cannot stand having clothes lying around the house she picks them up whenever she finds them, thus creating more work for herself.

How does she feel about the effect that it is having on her?

Here we need to get in touch with the feelings and how to describe them. The clearer we are about what we are feeling the more congruent our expression will be. Mary wasn’t unduly bothered for a while. Now it feels as though half her time is spent picking up clothes and she has reached a point where she feels used by her children and that makes her resentful.

Include a request for help.

Say something like: “I don’t like what is happening and need your help,” or “I have a problem, will you help me with it …?”  By doing this you are giving the other person a chance to realise that you are not attacking them; you are trusting them to be helpful and co-operative.

Behaving Congruently


How do you confront the person?  Armed with this information, how you confront someone is of vital importance.  You need to inform the other person of all these things.  The more supporting information you can provide, the more likely they are to accept your case and so change the behaviour you find unacceptable.  The form of your confronting message will thus include:-

  • a description of the behaviour
  • the effect of that behaviour;
  • how you feel;
  • a request for help in solving your problem.

Mary’s challenge might go something like this:-

“When you leave your clothing around the house I end up picking it up and I really resent the extra work Please can you help work out what we can change so that it doesn’t happen any more!”

There is no set order for the parts of the challenging message.  It is important to include all four elements and they can be switched round as feels most comfortable.

Mary’s challenge could equally have been:-

“I’ve got a problem I’d appreciate help with: I feel really resentful when l have to pick up the clothes you leave around the house.  It makes more work for me and I feel like I’m a slave!”

More on challenging

When it is our needs that are not being met – when the problem belongs firmly to us rather than to someone else – it is time to be assertive and bring about change.

There will be times when we are suffering because of something we have not said or done.


Another example from Mary:- 

Mary was upset because her birthday had passed without any major celebration. Her husband had given her a present, yet she would have liked the chance to go out and celebrate in style.  When talking through her unmet needs with a friend she realised she had never told him about wanting a celebration. Her needs were not being met because she hadn’t voiced them!


There will be other times when our needs are being interfered with by something that other people are saying or doing.

Mary was late for evening class at the college two evenings running because her husband was not home on time from work.  He knew that she had to go out and yet was giving more weight to his own need to stay late at the office.

Mary needs to challenge her husband’s behaviour.  On the rare occasions in the past when she had confronted him it was more of a head-on attack than an assertive challenge.  She would wait until she was so angry that she could barely control her temper and so it was hardly surprising that she ended up being vicious.  The inevitable result was that her husband became very defensive and attacked her in return, to save himself.  Bad feelings were all that could possibly result.

In the above example, Mary was not being assertive at all; she was being aggressive.  The important difference is that in being assertive you take the other person’s feelings and needs into account even as you firmly stick to your guns and insist on your rights to get your needs met.

Mary’s new assertive challenge went like this:-

“I’m really fed up and I need your help!  You have come home half an hour later than agreed two Tuesdays running with the result that I have been late for my class.  That course is very important to me and I feel as if you are not taking me or it seriously by being late.”

By challenging him before she loses control of her temper she is valuing herself and protecting her interests, ending up feeling stronger and more worthwhile.

By challenging him in a loving and non-labelling way she is complaining about his behaviour without attacking him – and so not damaging his self-esteem.  She is therefore far less likely to experience defensiveness on his part and more likely to get him to change the offending behaviour; and by asking for his help she is giving him the chance to realise that he should take her needs more seriously and consider her in all he does – a process that will encourage him to develop his awareness of himself as a person and as her partner.

In this way, Mary is satisfying all the important points of a useful challenging I-Message.

Examples of challenging

Sam’s two sons, aged three and four, used to fight to get to his knee first when he came home from work.  Sam himself was usually exhausted and grumpy after a day’s hard work and the long journey home, so the last thing he wanted was to be jumped on and squabbled over the minute he walked through the front door.

In the past he had struggled to put up with it because of feelings of guilt at having to spend so much time away from the family, working the long hours his job demanded.  Finally, unable to cope with stress at work, and the daily onslaught at the front door, he discussed the problem with his partner, who suggested he give the 4-part-I message.  To his pleasant surprise both boys willingly backed off and agreed to give him the short space he wanted to himself on arriving home.

The following day, when he arrived home, they dashed up as usual, the older one in the lead.  Then they stopped in their tracks and the older one turned to the younger one and said: “Remember we agreed to wait until Dad is ready, and then you go first for a cuddle”.

In challenging the boys in a firm and gentle way he managed successfully to bring about a change in the unacceptable behaviour.  He also gave them the opportunity to work out how to get their own needs met without interfering with his unduly.  In this way he presented them with an important opportunity to become more caring and responsible.


Another example:-

Joan shared a computer station with Avril, and found Avril’s habit of leaving her empty dispenser coffee cups wherever she happened to be quite infuriating.  At first she had disposed of the cups without complaining, but now felt that ‘something had to be done’.

The challenge went like this:-

“I’ve got a problem that I need you to help me with.  I know you love your coffee, and accept that it’s not always possible to stop what you’re doing and take your empty cups to the recycle bin.  When I get to the computer station, there is always at least one empty cup, but usually more than that cluttering up the desk.  If they get knocked over there’s a real danger that the dregs left in the bottom could damage my papers.  I don’t mind dealing with the odd cup, but I’m starting to find it difficult not to get angry or annoyed with you”.

Avril was apologetic, and seemed genuinely surprised that her forgetfulness was a problem for Joan.  She promised to be more attentive, and to deal with her coffee cups more efficiently.

Of course, it is not always the case that challenges work at the first try. Sometimes it is necessary to raise the matter more than once, or to find a way to help everyone remember what they undertook to do.  It is too easy sometimes to think that people are being deliberately unco-operative when they do things that we find unacceptable, especially things which we have challenged them about before.  There are many reasons for non-compliance with our requests or the contracted behaviour.  It may be useful to consider some reasons for apparent ‘failure’.

There is more on challenging in the next posting …

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