When ‘I’ messages don’t work – the soft ‘no’

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is the last at number 22) 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.  It is about when ‘I’ messages don’t work – the soft ‘no’

When l-Messages don’t work

There will be times when your I-Messages do not bring about any change in the behaviour you don’t like.  When this happens, it is most useful to check out how you sent the message and in what way it was worded – perhaps with a friend to help work through the different parts. 


  1. Was it really your problem?

For all sorts of reasons there are times when we are unhappy with what other people are doing even though it doesn’t actually interfere with our needs.  If you send an I-Message and cannot come up with a concrete and tangible effect on you, an actual way that what they are doing is interfering with your needs, it is unlikely that it will achieve what you want.

  1. Were you congruent?

As well as the risk of toning down your challenge until it has no effect, there is the risk that you can overshoot so far that they cannot take you seriously.  Being congruent means expressing yourself in such a way that all the parts of your message – the words, the body posture, the tone of voice -match up with the feelings inside.  It means you are being as straight as you can be.

  1. Were you acting aggressively rather than assertively?

Try as hard as you might it may be that right now you haven’t managed to make the switch from aggressive confrontation to assertive challenging. What was your I-Message really like?  Did it contain labels and put-downs?  Was it of the “when you always behave like an inconsiderate slob, I feel ….”  type that lacks an assertive description of the behaviour?


4. The need to behave as they are is stronger than the need help you with your problem.

At the end of the day, however careful and congruent your I-Message, it may just be that the other person feels that their needs come first right now and they don’t care about your problem.

It may be that they have a problem too and that is why they are behaving in the unacceptable way.  At this point, you have the difficult task of deciding whether you are going to put your needs to one side temporarily  while sorting their problem, or find some other way of meeting your needs without their co-operation.

If both parties have a problem that cannot be solved independently, you are a situation of conflict.  The authoritarian approach would be to force the other party to do it your way, the permissive approach would be to let them win.  The assertive approach is to treat each other with respect and sit down to talk about it and find a mutually acceptable solution.


This is the process of negotiation.  It is simply a combination of self-disclosure – stating your needs, and reflective listening – hearing the other’s needs, repeated until you are all clear as to what the real underlying needs are.  Then and only then can you brainstorm possible ways to meet all the needs.

Saving energy with the “Soft No”

There are times when the situation does not lend itself to negotiation, and an unpopular view or decision has to be implemented.  This situation arises quite frequently within families, and also in work situations where a management decision has to be carried through.

On these occasions it is useful for us to be firm about what we want and what is to happen in a particular situation.  Being firm doesn’t always have the desired effect – we may end up losing our cool and saying and doing things we later regret.

It is much more effective if we can find a way to be firm and gentle at the same time.

Being able to use the “soft-no” comes from feeling calm, centred and happy with who you are and what you are doing.  It really feels comfortable for you to be saying no.  Your body stays soft and relaxed and your voice is clear and firm.  You continue to use the words you first used and you don’t get into discussion or argument about what you are saying.

You don’t apologise, with words or by your manner, for what you are doing. People, especially children, sense the weakness that often underlies an apology.

If you begin to tense your body or feel angry you need to be able to let go of those feelings and come back to being calm and relaxed. That is, you control your feelings before they have taken you over.  Unless you are a brilliant actor, the “soft-no” won’t work if you don’t feel peaceful and sure of yourself.  It has to be congruent.

Many effective teachers learn this skill and use it with large groups of children.  Professionals who deal with very disturbed children use it too, often managing to remain calm and peaceful for two or three hours while they gently restrain a kicking, biting, swearing child until he or she has calmed down enough to talk to.  The soft-no attitude is a skill well worth acquiring, and the way to start is to learn how to keep your body relaxed.


Sticking to agreements

June was fed up with her teenage childrens’ habit of leaving lights on. When she had been out for an evening, she would often come home to find every light in the house still on, even though all the children were in bed. 

June had mastered the art of negotiating with her children, so they held a negotiating session and June got agreement that her children would make sure lights were off before going to bed.  But the problem repeated itself. So June called a second session to make sure everyone was truly in agreement with the solution.  They were.  Yet only a week later she came home again to find the house ablaze. 

On this occasion she went and woke all the children up – even though it was after 11 p.m – and calmly and firmly told them to get out of bed and turn off the lights. 

She met some strong resistance (each child put the blame on someone else), yet she stuck to her demand, expressing it more quietly rather than more loudly, until they were all assembled downstairs to switch off the lights.  It was the last time the lights were left blazing in the house!

For June this really worked!!  Consider giving the material in these ‘blogs’ a ‘go’.  You have nothing to lose!! Speaking personally, I get something new every time and am most grateful to the Sokolov-Pearson partnership … Thank you SO MUCH.


There are many things that will help you in Sue’s book “Peace of Mind – Pathways to Successful Living”. Download chapter 1 free now!

There are helpful free downloads at www.suewashington.com


















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