Critiquing ‘You’

Critiquing ‘You’

Choosing a title for examining the use of the powerful personal pronoun ‘you’ was not a piece of cake.  ‘you’ is in the middle of every squabble. All by itself, ‘you’ is a good “guy”, but the ‘company’ it keeps causes ‘you’ to vacillate between being a prince/princess to a culprit, accuser to encourager, giving compliments and affection to destroying someone’s self-esteem. The use of ‘you’ either disrupts relationships or heals them.  Analyzing ‘you’ from different angles throws a bright light on communication skills offering helpful review for some and ‘window-opening’ for others. Because of the versatility of the ‘you ‘-pronoun changing dramatically depending on the words following it, I chose Critiquing with synonyms: distinction, discernment, tasteful, refined, understanding, discretion, review and examine. Improving communication skills is my goal today. Oh, and having fun doing so, is a prerequisite. Our work is cut out for us because there is a simple solution to all the above problems.

Hearing someone addressing us with just two words--“Now, you” --depending on inflection and tone of their voice is bound to conjure up a bit of apprehension waiting for the shoe to drop. Some people cringe when they hear a parent, boss, friend or spouse begin a sentence with ‘you’.  Even the sentence, “I need to talk to you,” can speed up the heart if coming from your boss or if you’re a child, from a parent or teacher.  Reminisce your past quandary of “What did I do, now?”

Who doesn’t enjoy receiving compliments and affirmations: “You’re beautiful”, “You did a fantastic job…”, “You mean the world….”, “You’re a lifesaver” …, “You won the game”, “You’re an angel”, etc.”? But when criticisms, observations, questions or advice that are begun with ‘you’, and are followed by one of the war words ‘should, ought, must or need’, they are most likely to produce tears, anger, discouragement or frustration. The poor placement of ‘you’ causes major communication breakdowns in marriages, parenting and the workplace.  And certainly, dealing with neighbors and strangers as well. Homeowners sharing apartment dwellings speaking sharp-tongued opinions without facts provide excellent examples of how not to use ‘you’, which often involves the police to settle heated disagreements.

I chuckled as I read comics this morning, of a perfect illustration of marital ‘you’ put-down. Wife to Husband: “Let’s go, we’ll be late”; Husband: “Hold on I’ve got a loose thread on my jacket.” Wife: “Don’t pull it! I’ll get the scissors.” Next frame, sleeve out of his jacket. “You just couldn’t resist, could you.”

Have you ever been told? Go away; leave me alone; don’t talk to me; don’t tell me what to do; shut the door; get those muddy shoes out of here”.  Even though these are ‘you’--understood statements, they still create negative atmospheres.

Then, there are the condescending questions where answers are not in the mix: “Don’t you ever look at the gas gauge?” “You think I’m hard of hearing?”, “Don’t you ever consider anyone besides yourself?” “Will you ever learn to turn the lights off?” or the famous antique “You think money grows on trees?”

I vividly remember when Jim and I were honing communication skills and practicing using non-offensive ‘I’ statements and avoiding offensive ‘you’ statements and I smiled remembering one time especially.

On a steamy July afternoon following Vacation Bible School and after taking a couple of kids home, I was focused on what I would serve Jim and me for lunch, when my car lost power, which totally unnerved me. I breathed a little easier as the car drifted to a safe spot. I was on a quiet street so had to figure out how to contact Jim {before cell phones}. I knocked on the door of a house nearby and fortunately, a very kind lady ushered me inside to use her telephone.  I silently prayed “Oh, Lord, please have Jim be home by now.  He’ll wonder what delayed me.” I was relieved when he answered. “Where in the world are you?”, he asked. “I’m on Daisy Avenue; the car lost power”. “Are you out of gas?”  “I don’t know”. “I’ll bring a can of gasoline just in case.” Cars were his business, including pumping gas. I merely drove when I had to.

“Don’t you ever look at the gas gauge?” he asked disgustedly, which really hurt my feelings. I wanted some sympathy. But, before I complained or blamed him for the problem, I thought, ‘Hmmm that was a hurtful ‘you’ question. This is probably a good time to practice using an ‘I’ statement. When Jim was tightening the gas cap, I said “I wonder if that’s what you would have said to Dot Adams {a church member} if she had been the one who called that she was out of gas?” “No, I wouldn’t have”, Jim admitted as he put his arms around me and apologized for his poor choice of words. We learned later that Head Logic people, like Jim, treat family members like they would treat themselves. Jim would have been just as upset at himself if he had run out of gas.

But Jim and I had to master the concept it before I could recommend it. Although we loved each other dearly, we still had doozsies of arguments. We had already agreed that we would discuss only one problem at a time and when that was settled, it was not allowed to be brought up ever again.  As we’d discuss our opinions, we’d remind the other when an ‘offensive ‘you’ statement’ had slipped in--“I will wait for an ‘I’ statement” --and we’d give the other time to rephrase their last comment.  This usually produced smiles that we were following our own counseling.

I encourage you to give it a try.  Many clients say that they make lists of possible ‘I’ statements that they can use responding to an unhappy friend or mate. Some people can think on the spot and speak extemporaneously but others have to deliberate longer. I like to remind Extroverts to be mindful of Introverts who need extra time to think through what they want to say.

I’ve enthusiastically embraced the approach of using non-offensive ‘I’ instead of offensive ‘you’ in marriage and family counseling, retreats and writing. Many relationships have been sweetened and several couples credit that adjustment in their communication for saving their marriage. And many parents have successfully learned to dialogue with their children and teens.

Along with understanding how to use ‘you’, positively, even of better help in communication skills was discovering our Myers Briggs Temperament Indicator (MBTI). Jim and I had been married over 20 years before we learned that by God’s design we had been gifted with opposite preferences and viewpoints in two areas. We both maintained healthy respect as well as thankfulness, for how the other functioned in a different realm. Consequently, we reached our goal of achieving kind, honest, respectful and healthy communication.

On a related note, a mate, friend, child or teen sharing a personal problem will not be helped if your response is “You brought this on yourself” (even if it’s true) and criticizing others involved in the skirmish, or asking why they spend time with that person in the first place. Discussion of these details will occur naturally later. The wisest approach is to first acknowledge the problem. Just name it. “I can see that you are very upset with what happened and that Ronny’s mom said you weren’t welcome at their home anymore. I know that it is very hurtful.” Pause briefly. That acknowledgment will magically release the offender and ensuing details will follow. It’s like saying to a 3-year-old “I see that your new toy is broken. I’m sorry.” The three-year-old will then tell you exactly how it happened. That works with 13-year-olds, 33-year-olds and 83-year-olds.  Try it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised and pleased.

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Gal. 5:22-23 (NIV).                                         God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 2 Tim. 1:7 (ESF).