I don’t need to do anything…and neither do you

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“You need to do… ” is a phrase I hear often, and I confess, when someone says it to me, I have a visceral reaction to it.  I feel my muscles tighten and my mind skips – like my old vinyl records used to do.  I go anti-authoritarian and I want to do the opposite of whatever the speaker is suggesting, or ignore her.  My internal dialogue sounds something like “Who are you to tell me what I need to do?  And why do I need to do it?  If I don’t do it, what will happen?” The irony is that often the person’s intent is to be helpful but, instead, I end up rejecting the suggestions outright because of the way they are delivered.

I heard it a lot when I was pregnant:  You need to buy this brand of stroller.  You need to make your own baby food.

I hear it as a parent of teens: You need to take their phones away.

I hear it when my clients describe the kind of feedback they receive: You need to work on your communication.

I hear it when managers describe how they assign work:  I need you to do this analysis before the 2pm meeting.

Some organizations have cultures that tell us “You need to do this and this and this, too.” They have created cultures where people don’t have the choice to say No. This leads to overload, burnout, and eventually sub-standard work which can have real consequences for things we all care about like air traffic safety, critical care nursing, or food safety.

I’ve become curious about the strong negative reaction I have to the you need tophrase. I acknowledge this could just be my own hang-up, but to me there’s an element of disrespect and bossiness in this way of speaking.  Even friends, family members and acquaintances speak this way in relaxed social or conversational situations. I once had a supervisor who told me I needed to set up a leadership film discussion series.  I kept dragging my heels (and I’m not normally a procrastinator), and I realized I hadn’t taken action because he never asked me what I thought of the idea, and if I was interested in doing it.  Directing may get the job done, but influencing gets the job done with the employee’s full engagement.

“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. …” – Yehuda Berg


Finding a Better Way

Words make a difference in the quality of our relationships, and because they matter, I spend time thinking about how people use language.

While telling another person what to do is fairly easy, it’s more challenging to influence them to make their own choice to act, speak up, or join in.  What might be a better way of communicating to influence?

A better way would:

  • acknowledge that people generally have free choice to do as they wish and invest the level of effort they desire;
  • honor the fact that people already have knowledge and experience, as well as the capacity to figure things out or, if they can’t, ask questions or get help;
  • recognize that people have work and life priorities that they are constantly juggling, and a new request for expenditure of effort is another ball they have to toss and keep up in the air.

A better way would have us askanother person to do something, inviting them to exercise free choice to say “yes,” “no,” or “perhaps.”

A better way would have us offeringwhat we know and invitingpeople to learn from us.

A better way would create a sense of mutual respect and provide choice.

So what could a better way sound like?  Let’s go back to the earlier examples and restate them in a way that asks, invites or offers:

  • You need to buy this brand of stroller. You need to make your own baby food.
    • I’d be happy to offer some tips on baby equipment we’ve really loved.
    • I read a lot about ways to make sure babies get great nutrition.Would you like me to share them with you?
  • You need to take their phones away.
    • Disciplining kids and managing use of digital devices is hard. We’ve struggled with it, too. What’s working for you? Would you like to exchange some ideas?
  • You need to work on your communication.
    • People would more likely listen and to and consider what you say if you slowed down your speaking pace and presented your ideas more concisely. Would you like to talk about ways you can enhance your communications effectiveness?
  • I need you to do this analysis before the 2pm meeting.
    • We have an immediate request from the boss. I know you are working on several other priorities. Would you be able to take this on today, if we shift other things around? What would you recommend?


Will it make a difference?

 You might be thinking “Man, now I have to be self-conscious every time I share suggestions with people or ask my employees to do something??!”  To that I’d say, no, you don’t have to, but you may want to try it for awhile and see what results you get.

If you like the sound of the better ways to help and lead others, I invite you (wink wink) to do the following for two weeks, taking notes along the way.

  1. Notice how you react internally – physical sensations, emotions, and your internal dialogue — when other people tell you you need to…, you should…, or I need you to….” How does it make you feel? How do you respond? What are you wishing they would say instead?
  2. Notice when you use the phrases you need to, you should, or I need you to when you are talking to others. How do they respond to you? Read their body language, notice the energy in the conversation and in your connection.
  3. Try to pause and rewind the next time you start to sayyou need to, you should, or I need you to. Rephrase what you were going to say as a request or as an invitation.  Notice how the other person responds. Notice how you feel when you rephrase.

At the end of two weeks, review your notes and look at how your language impacts interactions and relationships.

Is it easy to rewire our language patterns?  No.  It takes time.  In fact, I caught myself the other day saying to a client “You should check out this great book on networking ….” and then I caught myself and remembered I wanted her to see me as a helpful partner, not as a preachy, dictating authority.

People appreciate having choice and  being given a say.  Offers, requests, and invitations open doors to deeper connection.

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