The Simple Power of Pronouns

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Assessment & Advancement at The Latimer Group.

Pronouns, at first glance, are a simple tool to make language more efficient. They replace nouns and make our sentences shorter.

But pronouns also hold great power in our communication because of the people that they replace and thereby represent. One simple way to improve the understanding and impact that we create through our communication is paying closer attention to our use of pronouns.

Let’s start with “I”; people generally do.

When we are communicating, we often speak from the “I” perspective and that is appropriate when we are sharing our own opinions, taking responsibility and credit for our work, and expressing our feelings and intentions. However, a conversation that begins and ends with “I… I… I…” quickly becomes a monologue and fails to engage. Especially if we want to build a tone of partnership and collaboration, or rally a group around an idea, creating consensus or alignment, then “I” alone will not do.

“We” creates inclusion, connection, and ambiguity.

“We” can be used to represent an entire organization or a team, where we are creating inclusion and emphasizing a unified force. “We” can also be used to connect the speaker to the audience in a mutual bond of shared purpose and experience. The downside to “we” is its ambiguity. “We” can be used to take collective responsibility, but it can also deflect the responsibility from the individual to the group. Furthermore, as an audience member, we cannot tell, without context, if we are or aren’t part of “we”. To ensure that the audience feels directly implicated in our message, “we” will need greater specificity.

“You” reminds the audience that this communication is a dialogue.

When we use “you” to address our audience, we engage them. We balance the focus in perspective and demonstrate our interest in them. When we are including them in positive statements, “you” builds good will with our audience. When we are referencing issues, disfunction, or negative feelings, “you” can feel accusatory and create resentment. How we apply “you” in our statements, questions, and requests is critical in how the audience will receive our communication.

“They” is about others.

When we are communicating to relay information, decisions, and actions that others have taken, it is natural to use “they”. This is fine much of the time, but if we are in a role where we also need to create buy-in, rally teams, and/or demonstrate a unified front, “they” can create alienation. We distance ourselves from another group, our leadership, our customers, or any other constituency by calling them “they”. In those instances, “we” may help create the outcome we seek.

If communication is, at its heart, about creating connection and understanding, then let’s all use pronouns to their full potential.

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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2 responses to “The Simple Power of Pronouns”

  1. Derick Nicholad says:

    Attention to the power of words, and combined with the power of presentation, is a helpful lesson once again from y’all. Thank you. Derick Nicholas

  2. Derick Nicholas says:

    I see my comment is awaiting moderation. What does that mean, speaking of the use of words. Derick

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.