In her Two Minute Training Tip for November 1, 2011, my colleague, Maria Simpson, Ph.D. looks at the words we use when we communicate. She points out that to be an effective negotiator – one must be careful of the pronouns she uses. “You” in any form – “you”, “your” – is accusatory and personalizes the comment; for example; you will not get off to a good start in your negotiations, by beginning your sentence with “you”. Similarly, phrases like “you need to”, “you ought to”, “you should”; or “I need you to” will also be disastrous. By highlighting the person – i.e., “you”, the words put the focus on the person, taking the focus away from the issue or dispute. The goal is to focus on the issue or the dispute, not the people, or in the words of one of my trainers: “Separate the people from the problem: be hard on the problem and soft on the people!”

Dr. Simpson also notes that articles (e.g., a, an, the) and prepositions (e.g., to, of, on) as well as conjunctions (e.g., and, also, but) can also lead to disaster if used to focus on the person, and not the issue or dispute. For example, others have suggested to use “and” instead of “but”, so that the thrust of the sentence will be far gentler. (“It is snowing outside but you cannot stay inside”. vs. “It is snowing outside and you cannot stay inside”.) While both sentences say the same, the latter is not as harsh. Or, “Don’t smoke here.” vs. “We thank you and appreciate your not smoking here.” Same message but gentler.

Dr. Simpson notes that the only time you (one?) should start a sentence with these offending words, especially “you” is when you wish to compliment the listener. (“You look beautiful in that dress.”) Or, you want to learn about the other person. (“Where are you from?”) Everyone loves compliments and everyone loves to talk about themselves. So, in such situations, talking about “you” as the focal point is the issue.

In sum, Dr. Simpson suggests three concepts to think about:

“1. Pronouns matter. Don’t start a sentence with the pronoun “you” unless it is necessary, such as when paying a compliment. You want your statement to be associated with a particular person. Even better, when paying a compliment, use that person’s name instead of the pronoun.”

“2. Other little words matter, too. Similar patterns of usage, both written and oral, indicate similar ways of thinking.”

“3. Self-disclosure is important to building and maintaining a relationship. It indicates trust and openness. People don’t have to disclose their deepest and darkest secrets, but they can’t be secretive either. People want to know about the people in their lives.”

Using the right language in  a given context might make all the difference. Great food for thought and something to think about!

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by Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / / Website: