How Important Are "You?"

You receive a personal letter from a well-known businessman. “The obvious first choice is you,” he writes. Should you be flattered?

Not if you’re Joseph Cook, the Chairman of Amylin Pharmaceuticals. The letter he got last week, from “activist investor” Carl Icahn, demanded his departure: “The obvious choice for the first director to leave Amylin’s board is you.”

“You” is a tricky word. When used in a confrontation, “you” is an attack, and often triggers a defensive reaction.

Recently I stayed in a hotel room that displayed a warning sign in the bathroom: “If smoking occurs in this hotel room, a $200 fee will be added to the bill.”

I admired the wording. The warning didn’t say, “If YOU smoke.” There was no “you” at all. What if smoking occurred without me?

Imagine, one night, the room service waiter wheels in dinner and then suddenly decides to ignite the food because it’s a flambé, or because he’s a pyromaniac, or because your tip causes displeasure.

The room fills with smoke. What do you say?

1) Make a “you-statement.” A you-statement is all about the other person and what he or she did wrong: “You were 30 minutes late with the food, you spilled the soup all over the place, and then you set the room on fire. Also, you forgot the rolls.”

2) Make an “I-statement.” This focuses on the situation and your reaction: “When the room filled with smoke, and the fire alarm went off, and I had to grab my briefcase and dash out the window, I was surprised and disappointed.”

With an I-statement, you acknowledge that others, in your situation, might react differently: “Look, I’m not a big fan of four-alarm fires, but that’s just me. I prefer sitting down to a simple meal in a room that’s not engulfed in flames.”

Tip: If you’re having a difficult conversation, “you” is a fighting word. Use it with care.


Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (, Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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