Think Twice Before Using the Word “You”

Have you ever considered how the use of pronouns like “you” impact your message?

In his book Magic Words, Jonah Berger explains using pronouns like “you” are useful for addressing individuals directly and can enhance communication by making it more personal. However, they can backfire if used insensitively or accusatorily, leading to conflicts or misunderstandings.  

It can be beneficial when you want to grab someone’s attention and increase relevance. For example, a blog post titled “ten ways you can improve your workplace relationships” might be more persuasive than “ten ways to improve workplace relationships”.

Conversely, using “you” can inadvertently attribute blame or fault. For example, I come home from work and as soon as I see my husband, I say “Did you make dinner? While my intent might be to know whether I should preheat the oven before I change clothes, he might perceive it negatively and feel accused of not doing something he didn’t realize he was responsible for. He might think, I had a really hard day, why is it my responsibility to make dinner? Now if you both agreed that morning that he would make dinner and he didn’t, well, I’ll leave that to the marriage counselors.

This happens at work too. For example: “If you can’t meet the deadline…” suggests that it’s somehow the other person’s fault, when there might be other contributing factors. Another way to phrase this  without it seeming accusatory could be, “If the deadline is not reasonable…” This shifts the focus to the deadline rather than the person.

It’s important to consider the context and tone when using such pronouns to ensure effective and respectful communication.

By Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Ombuds Office and co-editor of Ombuzz

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