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Say no without using "I" "my" "me" "you"

Peter Drucker invented the concept known as management by objectives (MBOs) and has been described as “the founder of modern management.” Through his lifelong study of successful leaders, he identified that “The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say ‘I.’ And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say ‘I.’ They don’t think ‘I.’ They think ‘we’; they think ‘team.’ They understand their job is to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but ‘we’ gets the credit. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.”

Remember, people care more about their time than they do about your time. I, my, me, and you can be alienating when used frequently in communications. If these words are used, the listener will often feel less like you are working toward a shared objective. These words tend to also leave people feeling inferior or less important. They make it appear as though you are “above” the recipient. They make it feel like you’re not on the same team. These words make it feel like you care more about yourself than the shared goal. Let me show you what I mean.

Imagine working on a project team and getting this email from a colleague:

“I won’t be able to join the meeting today. I had the other dashboard project land on my lap. Can you send me the notes so I can catch up? Also my week next week is slammed, so I may need a little more time for any deadlines you set today.”

Versus an email that reads like this:

“Understand we’re working under a deadline and the meeting today is critical. Unfortunately, a dashboard project popped up on this side. Mind sending over notes after the meeting today, so we stay synced up? Also, just a heads-up that we should look at deadlines together—next week is looking a little tight on time.”

Which one made you feel more like you’re both on the same team, working for the same organization, and trying to accomplish shared goals? The messages say essentially the same thing, but the second message doesn’t leave a sour taste in the recipient’s mouth. The second message reads as if the sender and receiver are collaborating and working toward a common goal. In reality, the sender is actually saying no and winning back their time. The second message feels more collaborative because it doesn’t use the alienating words of I, my, me, and you.

Here’s a challenge for you.

If applied correctly, this should instantly improve your ability to communicate what you won’t do without distancing yourself or upsetting others. The challenge is to stop using the word I, my, me, or you in as many communications as possible. Craft your messages and sentence structure to not use these words. Make your messages about the recipient and what they value.

Pause and read the next ten emails you write and try to write them without the word I, my, me, or you. It’s tough, but give it a shot. Craft your paragraphs and sentences to focus on the we. Make it feel like you and the recipient are working together toward a common goal. We won’t always be able to avoid using these words. But when you say no, act like they are not in your vocabulary.


“If you want to make everyone happy don't be a leader - sell ice cream."

—Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple”

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