When Do You Say “You”?

Reader Dwight Robarts asks, “When is it okay to say ‘you’?” He correctly understands the importance for leaders to define self and make “I” statements. In last week’s teleconference I made the comment that I might challenge feuding staff members with a statement like this, “If you want to continue to work here, you have to figure out how to get along.” Obviously not an “I” statement!

I’ve been thinking about Dwight’s question this week. I think it is possible to issue a challenge using the word “you,” with care. It’s as much about the emotional freight of the message as it is about the language. If we’re going to make a “you” statement, we need to do it in a neutral way, where we don’t care too much about the outcome. In the case of the staff people above, if I have a lot invested in them making the choice to stay, I’m far too dependent on their response. The more I want them to do what I want, the more the resistance is likely to kick in.

Here’s another to try: “Here’s what I need from you.” In this case, too, we need to let go of our expectation of a certain response. We offer the invitation to join in an important endeavor, recognizing the choice is up to them.

And I would say, when in doubt, stick with the “I” statements, and defining self. Let me know your thoughts on this important issue.

6 replies on “When Do You Say “You”?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Betty, you’re way ahead of the game if you can even think through what you are saying instead of simply reacting. That alone will help tremendously.

  • Betty Johnson

    I’m lagging behind the rest of you having just joined this (my first!) blog. I’m smack in the middle of the “troubling” employee situation that Israel mentioned. I’m appreciating the insights. Thank you! It is a bit “sticky” finding myself in the situation of being the direct supervisor for an employee, yet the hiring and firing is done by a board. In another thread related to this one, there was the talk of the “why” question. I was ready to ask “Why are you here?” and I took a quick check and asked instead, “What are you doing?” I think it came across as less offensive than the “why” question but in this case, the “why” was answered in responding to the “what.”

  • Margaret Marcuson

    As you point out so well, Israel, it has to do with maintaining the line between ourselves and others, place appropriate responsibility squarely with the other.

  • Israel Galindo

    I suspect the longstanding caution against using “you” has to do with precisely what Margaret and others are saying about the need to take self-defining stance. But I’m perfectly fine with using “you” language when conveying what is the other person’s responsibility (as in Rebecca’s example with her children). For example, when dealing with troubling employees where the problem is poor attitude my practice was to define the problem as I saw it, define my expectations, and then give them a day off with pay saying, “Take the day to decide whether YOU want to work here or not.” That gives the responsibility on the part of the employee to choose how, or whether or not to stay.

    How do you challenge or coach someone without using “you” language? I think it’s possible to use “you” without being willful or engaging in advice-giving (a willful way of thinking for others).

  • Rebecca Maccini

    I was listening to a tape of Ed Friedman about Work Systems and Family Systems and I thought I heard him say some of those ‘you’ statements as he was offering another way to consider a problem in a work situation between co-workers. I have used the ‘you’ work with my children when they seem to be totally stuck in blaming one another or fighting over a particular chore and I say something like, Well, you can keep blaming each other or perhaps you can find another way to work it out, or negotiate with one another, and sometimes I may even recommend a couple of options to negotiate.


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