One Little Word That Almost Always Provokes Conflict

As you may recall, I am mentoring a group of eight young men. We meet once a month for three hours, using the excellent program from Next Generation Mentoring. In between sessions, we all read an assigned book, memorize a verse of Scripture, and complete other homework assignments.

An Angry Man, Pointing His Finger - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/perkmeup, Image #2686434

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/perkmeup

This month, we are focused on the topic of marriage. We are reading Emerson Eggerichs excellent book, Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs. We are also memorizing Ephesians 5:25:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (NKJV).

One of the homework assignments is to avoid the use of the word “you” when speaking to our wives. As Regi Campbell, author of Mentor Like Jesus and founder of Next Generation Mentoring, says, “Nothing good ever happens when we start out with that word.”

As a husband of 32 years and father of five daughters, I can assure you: he is absolutely right. I have blown it so many times, I have lost count!

The problem is that when you begin a sentence with “you,” it sounds accusatory and critical. Some examples include (fill in the blanks):

  • You never ___________.
  • You should have ___________.
  • You used to ___________.
  • I wish you would ___________.
  • I wish you wouldn’t always ___________.

We are trying to avoid this word with our wives until our next session on April 8th.

It occurred to me that, in a broader context, this word is probably good to avoid with anyone you are leading. The exception, of course, would be some sort of disciplinary situation, but that is very rare. Another exception is when you are wanting to praise someone and give them specific credit. But here we are focused on using it in a negative context.

Question: What are some better ways to speak up about behavior without starting off on the wrong foot?
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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=681682761 Joe LoRe

    Despite the fact that I believe religious indoctrination is equal to child abuse, the main focus of this article seems helpful.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Child abuse. Wow.

      • ADEBISI F.A.

        That’s serious!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

      I've thought all day about your statement–I don't see how teaching children about the love, grace, and mercy that God showed the human race by sending His Son is child abuse. Christ came so we might have life more abundant that the evil that surrounds us. My husband and I have raised seven children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and I don't think any of them would ever consider us abusive. And, I don't think they consider themselves indoctrinated, either. We love them and we have given them the freedom to decide on God themselves. Hardly abusive.
      My recent post #35 THE DOING OF BELIEVING: TRUTH

    • michael

      That's where atheistic indoctrination leads to – child abuse and all forms of evil that devalue human life.

  • K.C.

    Avoiding "you" will save so much trouble in a marriage. Turn them around into "I" statements.

    "I feel ____"
    "I think ___"
    "When I ___"

    Use them to describe you're feelings in a given situation or your intentions.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Excellent advice. Thanks.

      • http://lifeinhisname.wordpress.com Jose J Perez

        My question is, how do you avoid saying “you” in the rest of the sentence? I’ve tried the I statements but have found myself having trouble not saying “I feel X when you say/do Y”. Any suggestions there? How do you complete the defence without sounding/being accusatory?

        Great post btw.

        • http://lifeinhisname.wordpress.com Jose J Perez

          I meant “sentence” btw, not defence. Not a Freudian slip, I promise!

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

          How about something like this: “When I hear those words, it makes me want to give up.” I think the key is to keep it in passive voice.

  • http://theperkinsblog.com Michael

    I love you and I understand…

    This is what I always try to start things with…for the most part it eases us into a difficult conversation…
    My recent post Listen To A Message

  • http://www.facebook.com/mitchell.ebie Mitchell Ebie

    I could not agree more Michael. When we use the word "You" it assumes that we are right and that the other person deserves the accusation or criticism. That is why I believe that the word conjures up so much emotion. However, it is very possible that we are wrong, which is why it is best to approach the situation with more patience and understanding. A while back I was preparing a sermon and I used some quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. One of the things that I remember most was the importance of asking ourselves "what could I have done to cause this issue?" If we start with this question instead of "look what you did to cause this issue!" we will have a much better outcome.
    My recent post life is 10% of what happens to u & 90% of how u respond to it.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I also like the question, “What is it about my leadership that might have led to this outcome?” I don’t believe in wallowing in guilt, but it can sometimes be enlightening to start with yourself!

      • http://www.facebook.com/FourFecta Mitch Ebie

        Yes, that is also a great question to ask.

  • Sandra

    My husband uses "sweetheart" but I don't always buy it!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yea, that doesn’t work for me either.

    • nick

      thats funny (i have a hard time typing lol ,ect. reason really uknown to me) anyway this. matter really is compelling. Im definatly going to make a concious effort not to start a sentence with "you" when speaking to my wife , or anyone for that matter. im glad i stumbled on to this site, but im also feeling kind of crappy cause i just now realized with Sandras help, that I use "honey" and i think my wife IS buying it.. LOL first time ever typing lol, { i swear} . i dontknowhats goingon …anyway thanks to YOU or whomeverelse is unfortunate to read my first reply to anything on a copmputer. sincerly thank you great tool here. glory toGod also if anybody could help me, I came upon this site or blog er {not sure of term) by just trying to find some info on a bible version i have from thomas Nelson pub. still havnt found that, but it did lead me hear. thanks in advance for the help. God bles
      s

  • http://thejenyoung.com Jen

    Well said!

    My line of work often deals with having to correct people and explain their errors on contracts. I've worked hard the last year to do so in a way that is non-inflammatory…. and the word "you" is like gasoline!

    I find if the focus can be put on something objective, it is much more likely to garner a positive response.

    For example: "The transmission we received did not include the required addendum A" rather than "You forgot to send addendum A with your package."

    Such a small change makes such a huge difference!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      This is excellent. hat makes it work is the passive voice. Something happened to you rather than someone doing something to you. Small change but big difference in perception.

  • http://forrest-long.blogspot.com Forrest Long

    There are times when it’s good to begin with “you”, like- “You need a vacation; let’s go somewhere.” or “You pick the restaurant tonight and we will go out to eat.” You just have to be diplomatic in wording. Sometimes it’s a matter of juggling the right words. It’s worth the effort!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree. You is a great word for praise or acknowledgment. I am just referring to it in a negative context. Thanks for giving me the chance to clarify.

  • http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com Leadershipfreak

    This is a tough one Michael.

    I’ve found it useful to keep the end game in mind by saying things like:

    I want us to enjoy each other
    I want to be the kind of husband that ..

    In the heat of a “passionate” conversation, I’ve drawn back and said, “What are we both after? We both want to raise great kids. Or, we both want to enjoy oneness.”

    Doing that seems to let the steam out of my emotions and draw us together.

    Thanks for your post. I’m exploring the mentoring program you mention.

    Regards,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/tgsanchez Tim Sanchez

    I like to use the word "we" whenever possible. Whether that be at work or at home, we are working as a team. The decisions and actions we make always affect the team as a whole, so I try to talk about the team instead of singling out an individual.

    You can normally swap out "we" for "you" and not have to change anything else about the sentence.

    My recent post Predator on a Plane

  • http://www.yuzzi.com Rick Yuzzi

    My wife used to use the word "we" sometimes because she thought that would be less likely to provoke a defensive reaction, like "we need to be careful not to leave on the light in the closet". I've told her that drives me nuts. I'd much prefer the word "you" over "we" in that case. One strategy to might be prefacing your comments, rather than just throwing out a statement would work, like "There's something important we need to discuss…", or, "There's something that's been bothering me that I'd like to let you know about".
    My recent post Is Health Care Obama’s Iraq?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      The challenge is to (a) avoid blaming but (b) not be manipulative. This is not easy to do but worth working on.

  • http://gracefreakdan.wordpress.com Dan-Leadership Freak

    Michael,

    Reminding myself and my wife about our common goal helps if things get emotional.

    I've found stepping back and asking what do we both want pops the cork on excessive "passion."

    For example:

    "What do we both want out of our relationship?"
    "What type of children are we trying to raise?"
    "How does this help us reach oneness?

    These ideas apply to the front end of our conversations and when things get hot. In the heat of the moment, I've found focusing the ultimate goal actually draws us together.

    Thanks for the link to mentoring resources. I'm checking them out.

    Regards,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    My recent post Changing a life

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think that is key, too. I sometimes say, "We are on the same side of the table here. I know you are committed to the same outcome I am.”

  • Joe

    We recently discussed how to handle conflict in the workplace and haveing clear communication. One thing that really struck me is that whenever you are confronting a person about a situation it is important to:
    Communicate what happened.
    Communicate how you felt about what happened.
    Communicate what changes you would like to see happen.

    Just an FYI. I thought it may be useful.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, very helpful.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/jeremymeyers jeremymeyers

      That third step is where things get tricky. Ideally it should be a collaborative effort, and more of a "maybe next time we could try xyz" rather than "if you dont want me to throw a tantrum again, this needs to change".
      My recent post Scale it down until you can do it: Applying the GTD rules to everyday life

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    My struggle has been with combining the word "you" with "should." I've even been known to wag my forefinger at the individual I was talking to. I am working on changing the "should" to "might" because I've noticed a lot of people do not like to take advice (maybe it's just advice from me). If I find myself becoming overbearing, I just exaggerate wagging my finger and say something like "Here I am wagging my finger at you. My bad." Those words are usually enough to take the edge off of any hurt feelings and put what I am saying on a friendlier basis.

    My recent post #35 THE DOING OF BELIEVING: TRUTH

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I think also avoiding the words “always” and “never” are good. These kinds of absolutes usually make people defensive as well.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/jeremymeyers jeremymeyers

      Advice is a challenging thing. Many people, when they ask for advice, really want to feel listened to and supported. It's much more valuable to let them come to their own answer, even if you think that you know what they 'should' do. Because in life, we never really know what we 'should' do, there are too many variables in play.

      When giving specific advice, I try to avoid "you should" altogether, because I realize what I'm saying is "you are doing it wrong, and i know how to do it right", and that puts the situation on uneven ground, and nobody likes to be lectured at, especially when they're confiding in you for support.
      My recent post Scale it down until you can do it: Applying the GTD rules to everyday life

  • http://www.doubledippinglifestyle.com Brandon Smith

    This is perfect. Whenever my wife and I have conflict, I try to force myself to realize it's a "we" thing instead of a "me" or "you" (and it's often hard to humble yourself to that level). As husbands and leaders of the house, we need to understand that in the situations where we want to say "You never _____" it's often a reflection of ourselves and how we are leading the house.

    What I've found in my life is that when I'm sinned against, it's because I've become lazy about correction. And when we're lazy, aren't we really disrespecting our household, wife, etc?
    My recent post 39 Questions to Determine if Your Business Idea is Ready

  • http://www.michelletraudt.com Michelle Traudt

    Great post! I couldn’t agree more. I do not like those “You…” statements. It’s much better to start with how something makes you feel or how you perceive it. Most of the time others are not doing things on purpose or trying to hurt or annoy us in any way.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That’s a good point, Michelle. People don’t usually get out of bed with the intention to make our lives miserable. They are usually unaware of how they impact us—just like most of us are unaware of how we impact others. There’s lots of room for grace!

  • http://www.mymuneca.org James Castellano

    In the book “crucial conversations” they talk about making these types of discussion “safe” for both sides. Being safe means, stepping out of the conversation (build safety) and finding a way to create dialogue about anything. Then re-enter the conversation from a different approach. It works and the book is great.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I liked that book, too.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/ronlane Ron Lane

    I loved the book that you are basing your mentoring on and I have to admit a little jealous of the young men that are getting to take advantage of being mentored by you.

    Setting the example for how you want your children to behave especially toward their mother is such a key. Showing her the love and respect that she deserves and needs will teach your daughters what they can expect from a mate and your sons how they should treat a woman.

    Thanks for sharing with us about your experiences of your mentoring group. I look forward to more.

    My recent post Things I’ve learned from reading tweets & blogs

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Regi’s book was huge for me. I was headed in another direction regarding mentoring until I read his book. It has been super helpful.

  • http://www.rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    This is great advice.

    In my experience, the best approach to resolving conflict is to focus on how I feel about a specific incident – rather than making broad generalizations about the other person.

    Bad – "You always ignore me."

    Good – "I felt like I wasn't being heard when I was telling you about my writing project this morning."

    Nothing is worse than being told "you always…" because you feel like you've been charged with having a character flaw, which is so much harder to remedy than a single mistake.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for a great, concrete example. Excellent!

  • http://www.rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    I've also found that it helps to take the time to summarize, in your own words, the other person's position in a way that is fair and respectful. ("So what you're saying is…" ) My husband and I have found that it makes us better listeners, cuts down on miscommunication, and prevents us from exaggerating the other person's feelings or ideas.
    My recent post The Christian Response to Health Care Reform

  • http://www.rachelheldevans.com Rachel H. Evans

    I've also found that it helps to take the time to summarize, in your own words, the other person's position in a way that is fair and respectful. ("So what you're saying is…" ) My husband and I have found that it makes us better listeners, cuts down on miscommunication, and prevents us from exaggerating the other person's feelings or ideas.
    My recent post The Christian Response to Health Care Reform

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    The nice thing about that is that it communicates to the other person you have heard them. For so many people, this is really all they are after. It also gives you some time to pause and take the emotion out of the exchange.

  • http://www.womenlivingwell-courtney.blogspot.com WomenLivingWell

    I LOVE the book Love and Respect! My husband and I read the book 4 years ago. It was SO helpful that we bought 15 of them. We passed them out when friends were over and having marital troubles!!! Then we did a couples study in our home with 8 other couples using this book.

    I blog every Monday on Marriage. I've received a lot of letters from women saying "I'm trying to respect my husband but he's not respecting me!" My answer's posted here: http://www.womenlivingwell-courtney.blogspot.com

    I'm trying to help people stay off the crazy cycle and on the road to a satisfying and intimate marriage! This is my passion! And this book is an excellent tool! (by the way, lots of women cringe at this book – they hate the respect part – one woman in our couples study threw her book in the trash after the first chapter. Needless to say, her marriage isn't looking so good these days…)

    Courtney
    My recent post My Husband Does Not Respect Me

  • annie

    I agree that "you" is inflammatory. Using I is great if you're in an office andd/or impersonal setting, but, I don't buy it in personal conflict because I know what you really mean, and I know it's an affectation. Frankly, we're all getting hip to the jive. I find that it's often better to say what I mean, and that may involve changing what I mean (not that it is instant or easy). It's an assault to the sense of justice and self, but by tossing out old expectations and assuming that the problem is mine a lot of the time, I find that, not only are conflicts diffused, I am more compassionate and flexible when other people are upset over things I think are petty.

    I still use the "I" statements, but more often it's, "I need you to help me. I'm struggling with worry and it's a big problem for me, so if you would call me when you're late, it would really help me not get sidetracked."

    That, in my mind, and to the people hearing it is a world away from, "I get really mad when you're late."

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    Hmmm… I’ve never trouble with “you look beautiful.” Must be a fluke…

  • Stewart Steen

    "The problem is when you (sic) begin a sentence with you…"

    Hmmm.

    Of course, "you" is the English second person personal pronoun, so its use does seem to emerge.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

    Yes, it does. I am not suggesting we eliminate it as an absolute. (How could we?) I am referring to it in a specific context.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/gerrytrue gerrytrue

    The phrase I use most frequently to avoid a negative approach is "Would you help me understand ______?"
    This encourages an open conversation that helps me avoid jumping to conclusions. I regularly find that my original assumptions were wrong and the additional information helped me handle the situation with a better attitude.

  • http://trinityfamilylife.blogspot.com Marilyn

    In L&R, Emerson recommends that spouses use language such as, “That came across as unloving (disrespectful). Did I just do something disrespectful (unloving)?”

    That response acknowledges how quick I am to see the speck in my husband’s eye, yet how slow I am to see the log in my own eye.

    Of course, when we’re on the receiving end of “you always” statements, it’s time to do what Emerson refers to as decoding. For example, we need to remind ourselves that “always” and “never” are typically meant to indicate the intensity of our spouse’s feelings about an issue, as opposed to being factual statements about our behavior.

    My recent post on the importance of decoding in marriage can be found here: http://trinityfamilylife.blogspot.com/2010/03/in-

    My recent post Gratitude and Grace

  • Dan Lynch

    I read Love & Respect this past fall while on an overseas trip, it was a great time to read and reflect without some of the normal distractions. The impact it has had on me was amazing. It was the first book I have read on the subject that really hit home. There have been some other good ones, but this one nailed the way I was thinking at times and how I reacted. The "You" issue was something I was certainly guilty of and I have worked to remove that and phase thoughts and comments in a better light. It's amazing how communication between my wife, me and my kids (yes it works on them to) has improved.

    If you haven't read this one I would encourage you to do so. You will not be sorry.

    Biggest thing for me in the book was le
    My recent post Pray for Casey and Ava…

  • http://www.kristiejackson.blogspot.com Kristie Jackson

    Little rules like this always make me squirm. Maybe because Jesus is so much more about catching the spirit than following the letter. He expects us to engage our hearts and use our brains to do more than follow the letter. Beyond the greatest commandments (Love God, Love Others, and the ones He gave Moses), rules generally break down and are immediately subject to legalism. I know I'm making way, way, waaayyy more of this than is really called for. I just find it irksome that people so crave rules, especially with regard to relationships. We are talking about loving and respecting individuals, and we are all different. Is it too much to ask to think a little bit? Can't I think about what would be inflammatory and accusatory and avoid that without a rule? Besides if I took this advice I'd have to stop telling me husband: "You rock!" "You inspire me!" "You are incredible!" and "You always make my day!"
    My recent post Hebrews 8: Our Inner Tabernacle

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Sometimes it is a good to observe a rule for a period of time, just to learn something. That's the intent here. Also, I tried to make it clear that I was only talking about using “you” in a negative context. (See the last paragraph.)

      • http://www.kristiejackson.blogspot.com Kristie Jackson

        You are absolutely right. It is good to observe a rule for a period of time to learn something and I've never thought about it quite that way. Actually that's a profound statement given my instinctual resistance to rules. Definitely something to ponder.

        And obviously I somehow glossed over or missed the last sentence of your original post. My apologies.
        My recent post Hebrews 8: Our Inner Tabernacle

  • http://4u2live.com Peter Eleazar

    I really relate to the concern. "You" is problematic, but unresolved issues are almost worse. My wife and I approach it on the basis of "this is how I feel" – that allows both parties room to manoeuver, as it takes the sting out of the issue. It also helps a lot to find the right timing and setting. That said, our relationship has grown to a point where we often do better for a little bit of a rumble, because it clears the air for months afterwards. One thing I have found is that defensiveness just digs me into a deeper hole – it really does not build trust or harmony to avoid what is a healthy part of relationship management. A discovered secret is that loving her can cover a multitude of sins and shift most issues to the background.

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  • http://twitter.com/StephenCombs @StephenCombs

    Having been married for 15 "short" years I can appreciate the context of using "you" during a disagreement. The only problem I have is that it is VERY difficult to tell my princess I think she is beautiful without saying, "YOU are so beautiful!" or "YOU make my heart flutter!" Maybe this would be the only time your group could make an exception — when paying a compliment. Just a thought!
    My recent post Your Business Idea SUCKS!

  • http://twitter.com/StephenCombs @StephenCombs

    Having been married for 15 "short" years I can appreciate the context of using "you" during a disagreement. The only problem I have is that it is VERY difficult to tell my princess I think she is beautiful without saying, "YOU are so beautiful!" or "YOU make my heart flutter!" Maybe this would be the only time your group could make an exception — when paying a compliment. Just a thought!
    My recent post Your Business Idea SUCKS!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That’s why my last two sentences say, “Another exception is when you are wanting to praise someone and give them specific credit. But here we are focused on using it in a negative context.”

  • Martin

    My beloved wife had a college roommate who would ask things such as “Did somebody do something special with the nail clippers?” It was a house joke that we still use, but there was a sweetness about her that made it impossible to be upset. My own preference is to say, “I have a problem. Can you help?” Most people like helping others and it puts the issue on a cooperative basis. Frequently, there is more than enough blame to go around anyway that it is not disingenuous. It also sets the stage for mutual forgiveness, which is, in my opinion, the essential closure for any conflict. Your post made me think that, not only should I refrain from accusatory language, but my temptation to use it should signal to me that my anger and pride should be addressed before I speak. Humility and love go a long way in avoiding conflict.

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    Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/endstudios evie

    if you give/state a "problem or issue", ALWAYS try to give a "SOLUTION / FIX"

  • nick

    seems like the Gaius Petronius quote was put up right after my reply… too funny … THis Site err ,here is great! i cant believe what time it is… i guess ill put in my email …. im so encoureged by this . im always so sceptical about things concerning cpu's and technology. but this here seems to be an amazing tool. thanks again hope im not confusing. not real comfy in front of cpu but i feel like this is worth it. any feedback appriciated. " Faith based decision making over fear based decision making is a MUST" { compelled to type that before entering my email/info } im puitting in my info now and going to bed …

  • Kingsly

    Excellent Advice….Difficult to follow though!! :) Will Try anyway…

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