An Exploratory Analysis of Responses to Owned Messages in Interpersonal Communication

Article excerpt

THE PRESCRIPTION TO "own" one's messages is ubiquitous in interpersonal communication textbooks and training. (1) Referred to by various titles (e.g., "I-messages," "owning thoughts and feelings," "speaking for self"), the skill involves the use of first-person-singular pronouns to acknowledge personal subjectivity and responsibility. Many interpersonal textbooks suggest that owned messages create a non-defensive communication climate (e.g., Adler, Rosenfeld, & Towne, 1992; Adler & Towne, 1990; Carr, 1991; Deetz & Stevenson, 1986; DeVito, 1990, 1992; Fisher & Smith, 1987; Glaser & Eblen, 1986; Mader & Mader, 1990; Ratliffe & Hudson, 1988; Rosenfeld & Berko, 1990; Verderber & Verderber, 1992; Weaver, 1990).

Advocacy of owned messages can be traced to the field of general semantics, particularly Johnson's (1946) notion of "to-me-ness":

We express our awareness of the degree to which our thoughts or statements are projections of our own internal condition, rather than reports of fact about something else, by such words as "it seems to me," "apparently," "from my point of view," "as I see it," etc. For convenience, then, we may refer to consciousness of projection as to-me-ness.

Like Johnson, and later Berman (1965), Bois (1973) identifies first-person-singular pronouns as a hallmark of responsible communication:

The use of I and Me is natural for persons who are aware of abstraction and projection. They know that what they say is much more informative if it is not put, implicitly or explicitly, in the mouth of an all-knowing "goddess of supreme wisdom," the idol that stands behind most absolute statements.

Haney (1960) goes further to describe both the intra- and interpersonal value of "to-me-ness":

If I can remain conscious of the fact that my perceptions are the way "reality" appears to me -- and not necessarily to the other fellow -- I will find it possible to be a good deal more reasonable and tolerant of other points of view. One way to gain this awareness and to communicate it to others is to substitute in your talking, writing, and thinking, "appears to me" for the is of predication.... By doing so, not only do you heighten your own awareness of the "to-me-ness" nature of perception, but your remarks becomes |sic~ less irreconcilable for the fellow whose perception differs from your own.

Because owned messages acknowledge personal responsibility and enhance interpersonal communication, they have been widely endorsed in humanistic psychology (e.g., Alberti & Emmons, 1978; Gordon, 1970; Guerney, 1977; Miller, Nunnally, & Wackman, 1975; Rogers, 1953; Satir, 1976). It was in Gordon's effectiveness training texts (see also 1974, 1977) that the skill of "I-messages" was popularized. Ultimately, "owning" came to be regarded as a sign of interpersonal competence (Argyris 1962, 1965; Berryman-Fink & Pederson, 1981; Bochner & Kelly, 1974; Rose, Cayner, & Edleson, 1977; Ruben, 1976; Wiemann, 1977) because "it shows a willingness to accept responsibility for oneself and commitment to others" (Bochner & Kelly, p. 290).

Gordon's technique for sending "I-messages" rather than "You-messages" is seminal to owned-message prescriptions in interpersonal texts; however, his work is rarely acknowledged. Instead, message owning is commonly associated with Gibb's (1961) communication climate model. (2) Many texts link Gibb's supportive component of "description" with I-messages and his contrasting defensive component of "evaluation" with You-messages. The irony is that Gibb never recommends (or even mentions) owned messages as a means for creating a supportive climate. (3) It was Cline and Johnson (1976) who paired Gordon's technique with Gibb's model. Although they concluded that I-messages create less interpersonal defensiveness than You-messages, their contention that "a pattern of messages communicating owning of feelings constitutes a non-defensive climate" remains unsubstantiated. …