ozarque (ozarque) wrote,

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Verbal self-defense; three-part messages, part one

In response to my post yesterday on not keeping score (and unconditional love), archangelbeth commented: "Unconditional love isn't healthy if the other person takes it as unconditional license. Unconditional love shouldn't be unconditional silence."

I suspect that the most useful response I could make to this comment is a post on the verbal self-defense technique called "the three-part message." (Sometimes -- but not by me -- called the "three-part assertion message.") Starting with just the instructions....

Most adults in the mainstream culture have an automatic negative reaction to hearing complaints and requests for changes in their behavior, even when they come from people who legitimately outrank them; their reaction to direct commands from other adults tends to be even more negative. The three-part message (based on the traditional "I-message" and further developed by Dr. Thomas Gordon and others) is a pattern developed to get past that automatic reaction. It looks like this:

"When you (X), I feel (Y), because (Z)."

To use the pattern, follow these steps:

1. Fill (X) with the exact item of behavior you want changed. It must be concrete and verifiable in the real world.

2. Fill (Y) with the emotion you feel (or the emotion felt by whoever asked you to make the complaint) in response to the behavior you want changed. It should be verifiable because it makes sense in the situation, and because it matches your body language.

3. Fill (Z) with the consequences of the behavior you want changed. (If no real world consequence exists, use an appropriate fact or statistic that is concrete and verifiable in the real world.)

NOTE: Follow the pattern exactly; resist the temptation to make changes. Don't change "I feel" to "You make me feel," for instance. When time allows, write your message out in advance and check it to be sure it's constructed properly.


1. "When you don't water the tomatoes, I feel angry, because plants die without water." (Leveler Mode)

2. "When you don't turn in your reports on time, I feel frustrated, because I can't start my own reports until I have yours." (Leveler Mode)

3. "When employees don't turn in their reports on time, people feel frustrated, because they can't start their own reports until they have those sales figures." (Computer Mode)

These examples tell the person exactly what behavior should be changed, exactly how the complainer feels when that behavior occurs, and exactly what real-world consequences of the behavior justify the complaint. Each message contains only one complaint, and no moral judgments are included. When these messages are properly put together they contain nothing that can plausibly be argued about.

Three-part messages are very different from typical complaints, which often sound like this: "When you ACT like you think you're Commander-in-Chief of the whole WORLD, it drives me NUTS, and I'm not going to TAKE that kind of garbage from you any longer!"

Adults (and teenagers) who hear typical complaints tend to react defensively and with strong resistance, even when they know they're totally in the wrong; they may react negatively in spite of the fact that they have no real objection to complying with the complaint. Their reaction is to the fact that what you're saying is a complaint -- a negative comment about them personally, or about their behavior -- rather than to its content. Even when such complaints are backed up by punishment or rewards, compliance is likely to be poor. You'll get better results, much more quickly and effectively, with three-part messages.

Tags: verbal self-defense

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