Words Matter – Consciously Chosen Words

Over a few years of therapist training and coach training, I became acutely conscious of how I used pronouns: I, you, we, they, it.

I began to believe that my pronoun choice was a powerful way for me to discover my unconscious assumptions, and to communicate more clearly.

Here’s an example to walk you through what I mean:

First variation: “When I disagree with someone, I feel tense, anxious, and uncomfortable.”

When I choose to express this sentence in the first person (“I”), I am taking ownership of my actions (disagreeing) and my reactions (feeling tense, anxious, and uncomfortable).

Second variation (with the same intent as the first): “When you disagree with someone, you feel tense, anxious, and uncomfortable.”

(Imagine this in a buddy-buddy tone, as in, “You know when you disagree with someone, and you feel tense and anxious and uncomfortable?”)

I frequently hear people speak in the second person when they actually are describing their own experience. I imagine they mean, “When a person disagrees with someone, the person feels tense, anxious, and uncomfortable”, but instead they say it in the second person: “When you disagree with someone, you feel tense, anxious, and uncomfortable.”

The speaker’s actual meaning, I imagine, is not their belief about what “a person” does, but the truth for themselves. In the above example, the speaker means that when she disagrees with someone, she feels tense, anxious, and uncomfortable. But instead, she said “you”, when a quick poll would show that for many “you”s, reality is different – other people may get excited and energized by disagreement, may feel intrigued and curious, may feel ready to fight… a myriad of reactions.

When I describe my feelings in the second person (“you”), not only am I distancing myself from my own feelings and refusing to own them, but I am also assuming that what is true for me is true for others. I’ve been trying for a long time to be more aware of how I speak about my feelings. To not say, “You know when you get tired and you feel overwhelmed?” and instead say, “When I get tired, I feel overwhelmed.” To not say, “It hurts”, or “It makes me sad”, but to say, “I hurt”, and “I feel sad.”

These small changes in language are making me more aware of what I believe and feel, more aware of what I assume without questioning, and bringing me into more direct relationship with what I am experiencing.

This week, I invite you to pay attention to what pronouns you use:

Do you use “you” when you mean “I”?

Do you use “we” when you mean “I”? (Common in groups, e.g. “I think I’m speaking for all of us when I say that we believe…”)

Do you use “it” when you mean “I”? (e.g. “It hurts,” instead of, “I’m hurt”.)

What’s the impact on you if you consciously choose “I”?

 

If you’d like to read more on language, I recommend:

-Pretty much everything from The Center for Nonviolent Communication, and particularly the book Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life (I found it at my local library, and eventually bought my own copy)

-On “I-statements”: here and here and here

Gestalt Processes and Language

Laura McGrath, CPCC, is a Toronto-based co-active life coach who helps smart people to live from their hearts. Let's talk! You can subscribe to Ready for Change news to receive thoughtful notes on personal growth, and you can contact Laura to find out if coaching is right for you.

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