The Secret Language of Pronouns: How to Drive Ownership And Accountability

by Jesse Lahey on September 16, 2015

Young colleagues talking about computer problems

In my mid-20s, while in Chicago on business, I had lunch with my former boss at the global consulting firm I had left a couple years earlier.

“You’ve come a long way,” Laurie commented after listening to me talk about my recent projects. “You aren’t the young greenhorn you used to be.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’m doing essentially the same work as when I was on your team.”

“It’s the way you talk about the work and the people. For example, you said ‘my graphic designer’ and ‘my client,’ rather than ‘the graphic designer’ and ‘the client.’ You have more authority now, don’t you?”

The pronouns we use reveal a lot about our ownership, accountability, and relationships with others. And words like I, my, we, us, our, you, your, they, them, and their not only show where we think we stand, they also tell our listeners or readers where we think they stand.

As you’ll discover in future posts about the power of pronouns, using the pronoun “my” instead of “our” showed progress, but also revealed that I still had room for maturing as a leader of a team.

“I” = Personal Ownership

Like most couples, my wife Erin and I have some personal differences — one of which involves comfortable room temperatures. She likes a room to be warm, while I prefer cool.

Earlier in our marriage, we also had a difference in how we managed the thermostat. My approach was to pick a thermostat setting and leave it alone, day after day. If one morning the house felt too cold to me, I would drink hot coffee and possibly even change into warmer clothing. Erin’s approach was different. If she felt too cold, she would immediately turn up our house’s thermostat a few degrees.

Hours later, I would finally realize that I’d been sweating profusely and could no longer strip off more layers of clothing without causing a scene. I would check the thermostat and discover that the heat wasn’t simply my imagination … the house was in fact on its way to “sauna” status.

“Of course I turned up the heat,” Erin would respond when I asked about it. “It was too cold in here.”

“That’s so unfair!” I would reply. “You talk as if your perception of hot/cold is the only perspective that matters.”

Think about the difference between these two statements that Erin could have made:

  1. “It’s too cold in here.” This sounds like an objective fact: The temperature is lower than what should feel comfortable to a normal human being. Regardless of how the rest of the family feels, I will make a unilateral decision to increase the house’s temperature.
  2. “I feel too cold.” This sounds like an honest statement that acknowledges a subjective perception of relative value; the temperature is lower than what feels comfortable to my body right now. And regardless of how I feel right now, the rest of the family may feel fine. But this is the way I feel; I own this feeling.

Can you see why statement #2 was more likely to provoke a mutually beneficial conversation, rather than an argument?

Now, think about the difference between these two statements that I could have made:

  1. “You talk as if your perception of hot/cold is the only perspective that matters.” This statement is pushing blame onto the other person, and it sounds like I’m stating an objective fact.
  2. “I felt angry when you said that, because I got the impression that your perception of hot/cold is the only perspective that matters.” This statement is expressing feeling and reactions. I take ownership of my feelings and reactions, which may or may not accurately reflect the situation.

Can you see why statement #2 is a healthier starting point for a mutually beneficial discussion?

Anatomy of the “I” Power Pronoun

Although you don’t need to rigidly follow this formula, an effective use of the “I” Power Pronoun usually looks something like this:

I feel (specific feeling)
when (specific words/action that caused the feeling)
because I (result)

Beware: You are cheating if you say, “I felt you were saying that your perception is the only perspective that matters.” Notice that statement does not state a specific feeling. As a result, if you talk this way you are still likely to put your listener on the defensive because you will come across as blaming them.

The “I” Power Pronoun is about personal ownership and accountability. As leaders, we can use it to openly and honestly share our feelings and reactions, while acknowledging that they are subjective — and therefore, we take full ownership for them. This allows the listener to consider without defensiveness, and to work with us toward a mutual solution.

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

 

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