July 3, 2024

Why I Ask People to Speak from I

Nudging people to speak from I is a shift tool.

My business partner, Liz Nelson, writes the show notes for the Hey Sue podcast, a live coaching podcast I co-create with Leah Pearlman.

Liz recently noted that in almost every episode I ask our guest to “speak from I instead of we.” She said it happens so often, I might want to blog about the reasons I ask guests to make that switch in phrasing. For what it’s worth, I also do this with coaching clients 1-1 and in groups. “Speaking from I” is part of my ground rules in the introduction to all my engagements.

I most often do this right after someone says something like this (and I’m exaggerating of course, because as much as I rail against it, I love hyperbole):

”We as humans generally hear negative feedback and then shame ourselves, thinking that whatever the other person said about us must be true.”

In those situations, I will commonly stop and invite the guest to restate that point by drawing on their own perspective and experiences, and to use the word “I” instead of “we.” So the guest will often, after perhaps a bit of push back, say the exact statement with I. And the slight push back as well as the tonal shift that happens when someone takes up my invitation supports the value of the invitation.

“I hear negative feedback and then shame myself, thinking that whatever the other person said about me must be true.”

It is really different to take 100% responsibility for a point of view by using the pronoun “I” than it is to project a point of view on the rest of humanity by using the pronoun “we.” In my experience, just this one tweak of vocabulary unlocks meaningful awareness that amounts to a shift move from a closed and contracted context to an open and curious context. When I use “I”, I own my stories, judgments, and impressions. I take responsibility for what I am doing or how I react, and I often see a chance to face something uncomfortable that I may have missed by using the “royal we.”

I confess that those “we are this” and “we are that” and “people are just” and “humans always” have become pretty triggering for me, and I need to take responsibility for working that out on my own.

But, for now, when you hear yourself speaking from “we,” I invite you to pause, notice that you're doing it, try the statement on with “I” statements, and for bonus points see if you can notice any difference in your body sensations, feelings, or thoughts when you do it this way. For even more extra credit, see if there are any hidden benefits you have been getting in not speaking from “I” (maybe you can feel more comfortable thinking your reaction is the same as everyone’s reaction?).

Let me know how it goes! Share your experience here.

Also, if you want a good example of this tool in play during the Hey Sue podcast, check out either the most recent episode with Dominique Aubry-Morgan about searching for ease or the earlier episode with Robin Izsak-Tseng about imposter syndrome.

PS: Registration for our 2025 cohort of Certification in Coaching for Leader Coaches is underway. Want to learn more about the program, co-facilitated by me and Kaley Klemp for leaders who want to bring more coaching into their leadership? Visit www.inductive.com/certification, check out the deets, and apply today.

Sue Heilbronner

Sue Heilbronner is an executive coach, Conscious Leadership facilitator, and catalyst for change.

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