“Do you ever catch yourself speaking as if you are plural, saying “we” when you
should say “I”? If so, then your words may be stirring up trouble.” —Cat Saunders
By Cat Saunders
There’s something you can do–or rather, not do–to build more respect in your personal and professional relationships. It’s simple: If you ever use coercive “we” statements, stop using them.
Of course, “we” is a perfectly good word when it’s used to convey factual information, such as “we went to Africa” or “we work as a team.” The problem arises when people use the word “we” to speak for others without their permission, or when they use it to appear more powerful because they don’t have the guts to stand on their own.
Just for fun, try this quick test: Look in the mirror and tell me how many people you see. One? That’s great! If you said anything other than one, you might need an eye exam or perhaps some serious psychological help.
Assuming you got an accurate head count of one when you looked in the mirror, I have another question. Do you ever catch yourself speaking as if you are plural, saying “we” when you should say “I”? If so, then your words may be stirring up trouble.
Beware the phrase “we need to talk.”
The phrase “we need to talk” is so ubiquitous that many people think it’s perfectly acceptable. Yet I think it’s presumptuous, at best, and downright coercive, at worst. When I spoke with my partner, John, about using “we need to talk” as an example for this column, he recoiled.
“I cringe when people say that!” he exclaimed. “Somebody might want to talk to me, but it doesn’t mean I want to talk to them.”
The thing is, when someone says “we need to talk,” that person usually means, “I need to talk and it’s your job to listen.”
If you’re lucky, people who say “we need to talk” may also want to hear what you have to say. However, their interest in your perspective may be inversely proportional to their desire to be heard.
Say you want to communicate with someone about a particular issue. The respectful thing to do is ask. Make sure your tone is open-hearted rather than demanding, and be sure to state the topic in advance. If the other person says yes, find a mutually agreeable time to talk. If the other person declines your request, respect that.
Obviously, depending on the issue and your relationship with the other person, there may be consequences for you and/or the other person if the conversation you desire does not take place. Even so, it’s essential to remember that the gift of another person’s attention is a privilege, not a right.
We don’t do that in this family” fosters fear and shame.
Another common and disrespectful “we” statement is “we don’t do that in this family” (or in this company, church or group). Some people think this is a helpful way to teach children, employees or group members about acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
For example, when a parent says to her child, “we don’t do that in this family,” it usually means the parent is displeased. By speaking in plural terms, the parent communicates to the child that she (the child) is outnumbered, that the “we” in question therefore has more power than the child, and that the child risks her status as a family member if she doesn’t straighten up and fly right.
“We don’t do that in this family” induces fear and shame. It makes people afraid they’ll be shunned (or fired or excommunicated or kicked out) if they don’t comply. That’s not guidance; it’s a threat.
If you aren’t sure how to communicate without threats or coercion, two good handbooks are Jean Clarke’s Self-Esteem: A Family Affair and Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser. Another valuable sourcebook is Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen.
Practice patience, humor and respect.
For now, how can you get started? First, be patient with yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you catch yourself speaking as if you are plural.
Simply apologize, collect your thoughts, and try again–one human being to another, heart-to-heart. Pay attention to the other person’s response and solicit constructive feedback about how you’re doing.
When you’re on the receiving end of coercive “we” statements, try defaulting to humor. One of my longtime clients told me a great story about her and her late husband. Whenever one of them began a sentence with “we,” the other would say, “Does that mean YOU-we, ME-we, or We-we?” At that point, both of them would crack up laughing, which allowed the speaker to save face and the listener to gracefully refuse compliance.
If humor doesn’t work and the other person becomes more demanding, beat a hasty retreat. Anyone who doesn’t treat you respectfully doesn’t deserve the pleasure of your company.
This article was originally published by Evergreen Monthly (February 2004) and updated in April 2017.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).