5 Tools for High Stakes Communication: Tool #3, I Messages

Uncategorized Jun 08, 2022

Communicating constructively when the stakes are high takes skill and an ability to override your own instinctive reactions. 

That's why we're doing this series on five specific tools for stepping up your skills for high stakes communication.   This post introduces the third tool: I-Messages. 

I-Messages are a specific way to communicate what might otherwise be left unsaid. The purpose is to maximize the likelihood that you will get the other person to respond from a place of resourcefulness, rather than defensiveness.   

 I-Messages can be particularly useful when you know in advance that you need to communicate something challenging to another person—something that could trigger one or both of you into a “fight or flight” emotional reaction. 

I-Message Step by Step

An I-message is a sentence that follows a specific, three-part formula.The idea is that you prepare your I-message in advance, before either of you gets into a heightened emotional state. Here are the steps:

1.“When this happens:_____

(describe only the factual circumstances at issue without judgment or editorializing)

2. I feel ______

(describe your state of mind, what you are feeling inside yourself when this happens)

3. Because_______”

(describe which of your needs are at stake in this situation and how the circumstances in question are impacting your ability to meet these needs)

4. Stop. Wait as long as it takes for the other person to respond. Listen deeply for the other person’s feelings and needs as well as any requests they are making of you to help them meet their needs.

Bonus Step

5. “Could it work for both of us if____?”

(do your best to make a collaborative proposal that meets both of your needs)

I-Message Examples

Use passive voice if needed to avoid triggering defensiveness, but be careful not to become unclear about the behavior and its impact:

 When the heat is left turned up at the house while our family is away for a week, I feel angry and sad because it wastes money and needlessly contributes to climate change

When you mention someone else directly, assuming the best of their motives helps avoid triggering defensiveness:

When your foundation asks my organization to report on a whole new set of metrics, I feel frustrated and overwhelmed because we already have three separate reporting requirements from the other three funders of this same project and each time we have to produce a new set of reports it takes staff time away from actually carrying out the project and producing the results we all care about in the field


 Key I-Message Components: Behavior, Impact, Feeling

It doesn’t really matter what order you use the first 3 steps of an I-message.

The key point is that you include three elements:

Behavior (specific, factual description)

Impact (tangible and concrete effect of the behavior),

Feeling (how you feel about the behavior and its impact—be careful to express feelings, not thoughts, judgments or veiled accusations)

Expressing Feelings: 3 Common Challenges To Overcome

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg points out 3 common challenges to overcome as you work to express your feelings more clearly and effectively in high stakes conversations.

Expressing our thoughts, not our feelings

e.g. I feel this is pointless, I feel like it’s Groundhog Day

Expressing a judgment of our capabilities, not our feelings

e.g. I feel unprepared for this conversation

Expressing an assessment of how others have perceived or treated us

e.g. I feel betrayed, I feel misunderstood, cheated, mistrusted etc


Staying Positive and Resourceful When Receiving an I-Message

When you receive an I-Message you have a fundamental choice about how to respond:

Blame yourself for the other person’s feelings

Blame the other person for their feelings


Seek to understand and empathize with your feelings in connection with your own psychological needs

Seek to understand and empathize with the other person’s feelings in connection with their psychological needs


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