The 3-Part Message

This is, quite possibly, my most favorite skill of all time. I know, I know, I seem to say that about ALL the skills but, I really mean it! Its a very useful communication tool that avoids the common pitfalls that can derail communication and send the speakers into full-blown argument territory with defenses raised to the heavens. When that happens, its over. We want to avoid that at all costs. So, I have developed (with bits from here and there and my own experience) what I call the 3-Part Message which is downloadable as a PDF.

It is a rather simple tool but at first seems a bit cumbersome or, as I frequently describe it "clunky". As you get used to it, however, it can feel quite "normal" and easier to find opportunities to put it into practice. You can also, once you understand the format, modify it to better suit your personality and style of speaking.

Without further ado, I present, The 3-Part message!

"I feel (felt) _____________________

when _________________________________________________________.

I need _________________________________________________________.

Starting with whichever one of these parts is the easiest, simply fill in the blanks.

Note that for the feeling you get a very short line! That's because if you use more than one word you are, very likely, moving away from a feeling and into a thought. For example, "I feel that we need to talk" is not a feeling. "I feel that you're not listening to me" is not a feeling. "I feel concerned" is a feeling.

The "when" part has an extra little "rule" that you should be aware of and that is AVOID the use of the word "you" because what tends to happen is the minute you say "you", that "you" is on the defensive! For example, if I said "you never listen to me" the response would probably be "yes I do!" Now we're moving away from healthy, productive communication and into unhelpful arguing and defensiveness.

Avoiding the word "you" can be extremely difficult, though, so I have found that using phrases like "when I notice... ", "when I see...", and "when I hear..." usually get me out of the "you" because I can use another "I message" and skip right over the need for "you." For example instead of "you never listen to me" I could say "when I notice that I am repeating myself frequently." It takes some thinking and some practice before it comes naturally. (That's the part that makes it a bit "clunky".)

Finally, the "need" part of the message is quite possibly the most important part. At this point, you are letting the other person know what they can do, if anything, to rectify the situation. For example, if the problem is "dishes left in the living room" the need might be that they are taken to the sink. Its also really important to be SPECIFIC with the need. If you "need" time to calm down, then be specific: "I need 15 minutes to walk around the block and calm down, then we can talk more about this." Many people leave off the "need" part of the message and then the other person is left feeling hopeless or rush to "fix" a problem when perhaps that is not what is actually needed! That is why I feel it's maybe the most important part. Figuring out what you need from the other person allows them to understand what they can do ("I need you to just listen to me", "I need you to hold me so I can feel your support") especially when its not so obvious what is actually needed. 

What I usually tell my clients to do when they feel themselves moving into an argument or feel themselves getting anxious or angry is to excuse themselves and go to the bathroom. I know, it sounds a bit odd--but think about it--its one room in the house that you're fully expected to be in there, by yourself (for a few minutes anyway) and locking the door is completely appropriate! So, if you have a small drawer in your bathroom, keep the above PDF, a pad of paper and a pencil in it so that you have it when you need it!

One major benefit of the 3-Part Message is that it allows you to take a moment to think. It gives you time to breathe and it slows you down so you can avoid the conversation with an angry voice or anxious timidity. Writing it down allows an opportunity to vent (you can write all the "you's" you want and then go back and figure out how to get rid of them later before you actually say or read the speech to the other person) and hopefully to calm down enough that you can be firm, clear, and concise in your speech. Many of us, including myself, have the tendency to talk the other person to death--explaining and reasoning and all kinds of things. The problem is we begin to sound like the teacher on the Peanuts cartoons "wah-wah-woh-whah-wah"--especially when talking to kids!

So, here is one example (there are several on the PDF) of how to use the 3-Part Message:

I just returned home from work and see that my lovely daughter has left several dishes and socks on the floor of the living room. I feel SO ANGRY because I've told her a million times to put her dishes in the sink and put her dirty socks in the hamper! Instead of saying anything, though, I'm going to go to the bathroom and do some  abdominal breathing. Next, I'm going to pull out the PDF, my notepad and pencil and write:

"I felt SO ANRGY when I came home from work and saw that you left dishes and socks on the floor AGAIN because I've told you a million times to put them away!" (VENTING)

Next, I'm going to consult the PDF and the structure of the 3-Part Message and fill in the blanks:

"I feel _____________" EASY! "angry!"

"when ________________" "I see that there are dishes and socks on the floor." I will omit the word "AGAIN" because its only going to inflame and invite defensiveness on my daughter's part. Note that I have revised my original statement which used the word "you" as well.

"I need_______________" What do I need? "I need you to put the dishes in the sink and the socks in the hamper. Now." (For the "need" section, you may HAVE to use the word "you" but you can try to avoid it there as well, if appropriate. For example, I could have said "I need the dishes to be put into the sink..." instead. Know your audience, though! If I'm not specific on WHO is going to put the dishes in the sink I may be inviting "well, I do it, then!" or another similarly snarky response from the listener.)

That example is a pretty easy one. Let's try one more that's a bit more difficult.

The situation: I see that my significant other has withdrawn a large sum of money from our bank account. AFTER I have calmed down, I might end up with the following speech:

"I feel confused, Significant Other. I noticed that a large sum of money had been withdrawn from our bank account. Let's talk about what is going on." 

Notice that I really ammended the 3-Part Message and made it more "natural". I didn't use the word "when" and I didn't use the word "need" but I'm still using the format. It's totally fine to make The 3-Part Message more natural for yourself. Not every situation can fit nicely and naturally into the framework. The idea is not to be rigidly following the rules but rather to make sure you're using an "I message" (the "I feel" part), describing the "problem" (the "when" part) and indicating what needs to be done to remedy the situation--even if that's an invitation to discuss it and come up with solutions together.

A final word about the 3-Part Message. You don't have to use it only when you're feeling negative emotions. You can use it (perhaps omitting the "need" part) when you feel happiness, joy, excitement, pride... and then you can use all the "you's" you want! "I felt proud when I saw you playing in the band last night!"

I hope that you will try out this Skill of the Month this month and into the future as it is a very valuable way to communicate your feelings and needs while reminding you to slow down when confronted with angry or anxious feelings, not to act on your first instinct which frequently is either to lash out and accuse or withdrawl and avoid ("fight or flight") and to give yourself a moment to allow your frontal cortex (the "logical" part of your brain) an opportunity to do its job!