Chronic Communication Skill: Speak for yourself.

Want to know the one word that can really put someone on the defensive, so that they put up a barrier to all of the words that follow? That simple word is “you.” You wouldn’t think that such a small word could create such high walls, would you? But here are a few examples of how the use of the “you” word can stop communication in its tracks:


“You need to…”


“You didn’t…”


“You should…” For better or worse, and often unintentionally, the “you” word finds its way into the communications among family members. Think about the times when you have started a sentence in this way, or when someone has with you. What is it about starting a sentence with “you” that can interfere with communications?


Starting a sentence with “you” implies that the other person needs to listen to you. And as you may have noticed in the examples above, “you” can imply that you are right and the other person is wrong. That you are giving an order or advice that the other person is obligated to follow. That you know more than they do. Or that they are in need of criticism. The result is a conversation that is one-way when it should be two-way, with frustration and hurt feelings on both sides.


Now, consider how a family member who is living with a chronic condition may feel when someone is coming at them with a conversation that begins with “you.” Most likely, they have been in this situation before. Being told what they did or didn’t do, and what they need to do, by healthcare professionals, friends, well-meaning strangers… and family members.


Family members begin sentences with “you” for a lot of reasons. First, there’s the worry factor. They want to help, and out of that desire, can fall into lots of “you need to” and “you should” statements, followed by what they hope are helpful suggestions. Or, if not, they are at least hoping to feel less helpless themselves. In turn, when the individual facing a chronic condition levels the “you” word at a family member, this can also leave them feeling misunderstood, or that they can never do anything right. Starting a sentence with “you” can also be a way to avoid hearing something that might make them feel sad, or helpless. In that way, starting a sentence with “you” can be a way of signaling to other person what we are willing, or unwilling, to hear. And it’s human nature to want to be right. Family members may use the “you” word to give them an advantage, and place the other person at a disadvantage, by setting themselves up to win before the conversation begins.


Even when the “you” is coming from a place of support, all those “yous” can become pretty annoying and hurtful. No wonder that wall goes up.


There are a lot of benefits to starting sentences with “I.”


• Using the “I” word implies an attitude of honesty. It signals the other person that you are opening up about how you think or feel. • “I” shows that you are taking responsibility – ownership – for your thoughts and feelings, not making them somebody else’s problem.


• “I” invites the other person to listen, rather than setting off the potential alarm that an order or a criticism is about to be coming in their direction.


• And be setting an example of openness and honest, “I” signals the desire to collaborate and not to take sides.


Here are some suggestions for building more “I” into your conversations:


• Be patient with yourself. Change begins with the intention of change. While using “I” may be uncomfortable at first, give it a try.


• Pick your starting point. Is there a conversation that you have with a household member that is likely to end in an argument or hurt feelings? This might be the place to begin practicing.


• Think before you speak. Before you launch into that uncomfortable conversation, take a step back and consider your approach. Is that first sentence about to begin with “you” or “I?”


• Start by taking ownership. Focus on what’s going on with you – your feelings and concerns. • Don’t use “I” to launch into “placing blame. End the sentence before you wander into the blaming, e.g. “I feel this way because you…” or “I wouldn’t have to ________ if you…”


• Pair the “I” word with listening. State what’s on your mind, and then invite the other person to respond. Listen to what they have to say, without assuming that they can’t, or won’t say what’s on their mind. Listen without trying to decide whether they are right or wrong, and what to say to make yourself right. Listen. You might be surprised at what you hear.


• Look for teachable moments. When someone is speaking at you – beginning with the “you” word – you might want to kindly and gently remind them that you would rather speak for yourself, and that you are willing to do that. But that you need them to speak for themselves as well. And that you want to hear what they have to say.


• Be ready to swallow some pride. It takes humility to take ownership for your thoughts and feelings and to not make everything someone else’s fault or problem. It takes humility to listen, because listening means having to hear something that you may want to hear.


Communication is a two-way street. Speak for yourself. Listen. Understand. Find a common ground.