Mind your “WEs” and “YOUs”

Mind your “WEs” and “YOUs”

I received two “you” messages recently. The first shows how NOT to use the “you” message: A client snarled, “What part of “no” don’t you understand?” (Really. I quit the contract immediately.)

The second was an offer from my favorite airline, apologizing for a recent flight delay of three hours and offering me 5000 free miles, using the word “you” nine times in a positive context (“We value your business”; “You can use these miles toward your next trip”). I still love that airline.

How to use “you” messages persuasively

“You” or “second-person” messages can persuade an audience and establish or continue a relationship, but poor use of a second person pronoun* can sabotage a relationship, as did the offensive and demeaning comment from my (former) client. In contrast, “I” or “we” messages focus the discussion on the speaker or writer, not on the recipient of the message.

To see this clearly, compare 1, 2, and 3 with 4, 5, and 6 below.

  1. We have enclosed an envelope.
  2. I need your cooperation to make this work.
  3. We shipped your new equipment this morning. It should arrive in 10 days.
  4. You may use the enclosed envelope
  5. Your cooperation can make this work.
  6. Your new equipment should arrive in 10 days.

I think most of us would rather receive messages 4, 5, or 6 than 1, 2, or 3.

When to avoid using “you” in a message

Be careful, however, that your “you” messages don’t appear to blame a customer. Let’s say a customer mailed a payment envelope without a check. Which message will help maintain a good working relationship with them?

1. “You left the check out.”

2. “The envelope seems to be missing the check.”

The pronoun in #1 is accusatory. Attacking a customer will not help you maintain a good relationship.

My Human Resources friends tell me not to use second person messages to describe an employee’s performance the first time you discuss it with them. For example, avoid saying something like this: “Ms. Jones, you are always punctual, cheerful, and willing. However, you are not filing very well.”

When first correcting Ms. Jones, don’t use second person–it sounds accusatory. Instead, neutralize the issue by saying, “The filing is not being done correctly.” If she corrects the problem, bravo! But if she doesn’t, then it is acceptable to say, “You’re not doing the filing correctly.”

Careful use of second person messages can enhance your relationship with readers and listeners.+

Good resources

First and second person in conflict resolution

State Department “I” messages

*A pronoun is a substitute for a noun. In my case, “I” stands for “Bette.”

Image courtesy of Pixabay

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