When l-Messages don’t work

The material in this series of 22 x blogs (of which this is number 20) 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.

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.  It may also be that we are taking on a problem that wasn’t ours in the first place.  (See ‘Whose Problem?’  to clarify this issue)

“I used to get really upset when my husband was away on business, and he sat in the pub with colleagues, drinking and socialising till the small hours of the morning.  I was concerned about his lack of sleep, especially when he had to spend long hours driving on the motorway the next day.  Now I realise that it’s his life and his body, and it’s his decision whether or not he gets enough sleep.  What he does is his problem – my only problem was a need to try and control his behaviour.”

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.

2. Were you congruent?

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, you are being as straight with them as you can be.

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 you will not be taken seriously.

“Having been so shy about confronting them all these years, my first l-Messages were  ridiculously tentative – ‘would you mind terribly … only it’s a bit of a nuisance’ when in fact it was a flaming bore.  No wonder no one took me seriously”.

3. Were you are acting aggressively rather than assertively?

Was it a really sneaky You-Message?  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?  Using you-messages (labelling) instead of I-messages (owning the problem, and stating its effect) tends to breed aggression and ill-will rather than co-operation.

4. Was there conflict of needs and values?

However hard we try to be congruent, and give I-messages, it may be that the needs of the other person or persons get in the way, and provide an overwhelming stimulus or motivation for them to continue behaving in the way we find unacceptable.  Then we both own the problem and will have to find some way to “problem solve” or negotiate to find an answer.

The hypnotic effect of language


We learn how to think and what to believe about ourselves from the messages the important adults in our lives sent us as children (and may still be sending us).  If a child has always been labelled “clumsy” or “dumb” he will very likely grow up behaving that way.  We all have a real need to be accepted and if that means satisfying other peoples’ expectations we will do so.

If our parents and teachers expected us to be brilliant or helpful and labelled us that way, we may very well have grown up resenting having to be bright or helpful.

Awareness of our ‘programming’ is useful, not only to understand our own behaviour, but also as ‘preventative’ in the ‘programming’ of the children in our lives.  Our influence is likely to be most profound on our own children, but it can happen that a comment we make or choose not to make can have a profound effect on a child we may see only once, when it reinforces or works to break down programming that is already established.  Consider this next section as it applies both to children in your life, and to the child that you once were – the child within, as  part of the process of understanding your own programming.

What is said to, and about, children matters because they are likely to believe it.  If you tell a child something often enough they can become “programmed” into believing it.  This is why as adults we quite often have negative beliefs about ourselves that are very hard to change.

Beliefs like:-

  •  I am stupid.
  • I’m not good enough.
  • I will never be any good.
  • I am clumsy.
  • I will never be successful.
  • No-one will ever love me.
  • I am just lazy.

Children aren’t born with these beliefs – they are programmed into believing them by the adults who bring them up.  We do this programming in two ways:-

1. Directly

In what we say to the child and how we behave towards them.  For example saying “You are so clumsy” and not trusting them to touch or carry things.

2. Indirectly

By talking about our children both when we know they can hear us and when we think they can’t hear us.  For example, saying “She is very shy and never talks to anyone” while the child is standing next to you, or “I am really fed up – I don’t think I was cut out to be a mother.  I wish I had never had John because he is such a nuisance,” said to a friend in the kitchen while John plays in the next room.

Children have amazing hearing and, like adults, they are desperate to know what is being said if they think they are the topic of conversation.

Over the years, often repeated messages from parents become self-fulfilling prophesies.

Negative messages tend to be remembered more clearly because they are usually delivered with more energy and power than positive ones. So messages we send when we have reached the end of our tether and get very angry have far more impact on the child than an occasional “I love you”, said as the child is rushing into school.

Messages are also registered unconsciously by the child and may be played out in later life without the person ever realising why.


Reasons for doing this

  • Adults tend to treat children in the same way they were treated.
  • The belief that children can be shamed into better behaviour – and this must be done by telling them how bad they are.
  • Tired and depressed parents, whose needs aren’t getting met, lashing out at someone smaller and weaker.


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: sue@suewashington.com

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