I’ve noticed an alarming trend in how people communicate with one another—a growing tendency to speak at others instead of engaging in genuine dialogue. This manifests in various ways, such as lacking active listening skills, failing to confirm understanding, and disregarding the impact our words have on others.

One particular scenario where this style of communication becomes evident is during moments of anger or when someone feels triggered. In these instances, the frequent use of the word “you” dominates the conversation, creating a sense of being talked at, which almost always has a negative impact.

Although I knew better, I caught myself falling into this trap a few years ago while discussing a frustrating situation with a close friend. As I vented my frustration, I realized I used the word “you” about eight times in just two minutes. Thankfully, my friend, who possessed emotional intelligence, pointed it out after we resolved the issue, rather than during my ineffective delivery. In those brief moments, I failed to practice what I preach on this topic, and unsurprisingly, it had a negative effect on my friend. It made me realize how easily we slip into this mode of communication when emotions run high.

To provide an example of what I mean, imagine feeling frustrated by something someone said and expressing your feelings to them:

“When you said ______ yesterday, you also mentioned _______, which is the same thing you said last week. Didn’t I tell you that doesn’t work for me?”

In workshops, most participants perceive this sentence as an attack that triggers defensiveness. It reflects a style of speaking at someone rather than engaging in a collaborative conversation. It’s not that the word “you” should never be used, but how and when we use it is crucial for fostering constructive and positive communication, especially when emotions are heightened.

Let’s consider an alternative example that embraces a constructive and inclusive “with” approach while conveying the same message:

“When we were talking yesterday and I heard ________, it reminded me of our conversation last week that didn’t go well for me. What was your perspective of that part of our conversation?”

Participants agree that this version does not feel like an attack, assuming the tone, energy, and body language remain calm and genuine. It conveys a sense of inclusiveness and openness, creating a safe space for productive discussions and deeper understanding.

(Please note that these examples merely illustrate a fundamental concept and are not definitive suggestions for what to say. Context, including individual behavior styles and personal history, greatly influences how messages should be delivered and received.)

While there’s much more to explore regarding the dynamics of “with” versus “at” in communication, being mindful of how we use the word “you” and avoiding it when frustration arises can be an excellent first step toward fostering more productive and inclusive conversations in the workplace.

George Myers, who joined Effectiveness Institute in 2007, became the president of the company on January 1, 2019.

Read more about George here.

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