We all know that person. The neighbor who thinks she’s Judge Judy or the brother-in-law who pretends to be Dr. Phil. They come up with an immediate suggestion for how the problem should be solved, and it typically starts with the words “you need to . . .” I understand those words are backed by an inherent desire to help, whether by fixing people or fixing situations. However, when we tell people what they need to do, I think it’s important to consider how our message is received.
Telling your colleague that “he needs to” finish his portion of the project is certainly a succinct way of demanding that he gets the work done. It also implies an insufficiency on his part because he has yet to finish his task. Further, it shifts the balance of power from equal to one-sided, because you’re telling him what “he needs to” do.
Telling your spouse that “she needs to” be more affectionate is likewise a message that may not be received in the spirit it was given. She may hear it as a demand for sex. She may hear that she’s inadequate. Or she may simply view those words as coming from someone in authority to someone subservient.
Even telling your teenager that “he needs to” improve his grades could be interpreted as a demand by you “or else.” He might hear that your disappointment in his Algebra grade is in direct proportion to how you feel about him in general. Or he might simply rebel against you because he’s practically an adult anyway.
Remember that the person on the receiving end of a “you need to” will likely view the phrase as (a) a demand; (b) an implication of inadequacy; or (c) an imbalance of power in the relationship.
Wouldn’t it be easier to say it another way?
Before you jump in to simply change “you” to “I,” as in “I need you to . . .,” think again. That switch doesn’t necessarily change the way the comment is received. Instead, try saying to your colleague, “I’m feeling anxious about the looming deadline. When will your portion of the project will be done?” Or to your spouse, “I’ve been feeling a bit neglected lately, so how about a date night this week?” Or to your teenager, “I’m feeling some concern about the prospect of you getting into a good college. Do you think an Algebra tutor for a few weeks might be helpful?”
Just to be crystal clear, expressing your own feelings first will help your subsequent request seem more honest and reasonable. And it will lead to a better understanding. If you are someone who doesn’t find it easy to express your feelings, at the very least, I hope you’ll try to put the “you need to” phrase in permanent time-out and work on some other ways to get your point across.
So, when you’re jumping in with the way to fix something, I will feel overjoyed if you choose to fix your words first.