How To Use “I” Talk Versus “You” Talk in Your Recognition

Bad things can happen when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Take the scenario of a young man I knew in his twenties making a quick purchase of snack foods and a pop at the local convenience store in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. Another man walks in to the store. But this man’s intent is to rob the convenience store of cash from the till.

This second man’s weapon of choice was a screwdriver. He stabbed the young man in the head because he was in the way. The stabbing penetrated his skull and brain resulting in motor brain damage as far as walking and use of his arm. But now he could not talk.

All he could say were approximations of consonant-vowel sounds like, “ma”, “ba”, “do”, or “to”.

This young man’s horrific life experience led me to learn how to give more meaningful recognition expressions using “I” talk language. I’ll explain.

Traditional Feedback and Its Impact

I was completing my Master’s degree as a Speech-Language Pathologist and doing my second practicum at the Rehabilitation Institute of Detroit.

My clinical expertise was in traumatic or acquired brain injuries. Many are closed head injuries resulting from falls or the majority from motor vehicular accidents. A few cases were open head injuries following some traumatic incident like gunshot wounds.

It was my working with the young man from the convenience store, who we will call “Steve”, where I learned the powerful effects of using “I” Talk versus “You” Talk when giving feedback.

Clinicians are human and when they give positive feedback and reinforcement for achieving desired behavioral goals, they will often say the classic line, “Good job!” to their patients or clients. This is the same action that happens with many managers with their employees.

Steve could only say a few consonants-vowel combinations. And in the beginning he could only get one or two correct verbal outputs out of ten attempts. I knew saying, “Good job!” was not appropriate to say to him. But what should I say instead?

Feedback and a Person’s Self-Esteem

I hit the psychological research and discovered findings that made sense in my clinical role.

A disabled person’s self-esteem is several notches lower than an able-bodied individual. If you lose the ability to communicate, as Steve did, how do you convey what your identity is? Who are you? When you can no longer communicate as you once did your self-esteem is ten notches lower than it was before.

Saying “Good job!” would not impact the person’s motivation intrinsically and behaviors would not improve. It may even deflate their self-worth and esteem. I will explain why shortly.

What I learned from the research review was that feedback has different formats, and they impact people in different ways. I have labeled these feedback types as:

1.   Generic Focused Feedback

2.   Giver Focused Feedback

3.   Receiver Focused Feedback

1. Generic Focused Feedback

Generic focused feedback is common verbiage, which is non-specific, and neither objectively defines what was done, nor does it give valid affirmation to the recipient.

This is when you hear expressions like, “Good job!” or “Well done!” used.

People have good intentions when using these lines but they do little for an individual affected by some disability.

2. Giver Focused Feedback

Giver focused feedback is much more specific and defines what they did. However, it likely does not give sufficient valid affirmation to the recipient. It focuses feedback from the giver’s point of view and is not mindful of the recipient.

This feedback uses “You” Talk where the pronoun you (the second-person personal pronoun, both singular and plural) is used.

You will hear expressions like, “You did a great job at pronouncing the “m”– “a”– “t” sounds in the word ‘mat’.” Or, “You really outdid yourself on the latest product review you wrote up.”

Using these “You” Talk lines is okay in isolation but has only a general to mild impact on performance and especially to a person’s self-esteem.

3. Recipient Focused Feedback

Recipient focused feedback is specific, defines what they did, and in addition, affirms the recipient. I will show you how this type of feedback focuses on the recipient and boosts their self-esteem.

The “I” Talk type of feedback uses the pronoun (the first-person singular nominative case personal pronoun in Modern English).

Expressions using “I” Talk feedback look like this, “I could tell you put a lot of effort into pronouncing the “m”– “a”– “t” sounds in the word ‘mat’.” Or, “I really liked the way you wrote up the latest product review.” 

How Feedback Affects Self-Esteem

Here’s what the applied psychological research revealed:

1. Generic focused feedback rarely impacts performance in clinical rehabilitation treatment.

  • It is far too short.
  • It is not specific enough.
  • It is not very personal.
  • And, it does not boost a person’s self-esteem.

2. Giver focused feedback can have some degree of impact in treatment but may not affect a patient/client’s self-esteem.

  • It is longer.
  • It is more specific.
  • It is more personal.
  • But, it may not come across as believable and so will not impact a person’s self-esteem.

3. Recipient focused feedback has a significant impact in treatment and definitely affects patient/client’s self-esteem.

  • It is of adequate length.
  • It is clearly specific. 
  • It is very personal.
  • And, it is believable and so this will challenge the person’s self-esteem to be positively enhanced.

Let’s look closely at these descriptions and ask ourselves why the difference in results.

The generic focused feedback intuitively makes sense that it is problematic. A person receiving such feedback would only know they did something good but are left to guess what it is. Such expressions are not meaningful and do not boost the self-talk and self esteem of the recipient.

Giver focused feedback using “You” Talk was more difficult to understand why it was less effective at first. Take the example of Steve whose self-esteem is at minus ten. If I said to him, “You did a great job at pronouncing the “m”– “a”– “t” sounds in the word ‘mat’,” what happens? He knows he is not functioning well physically and cognitively so he doesn’t believe in himself. He discounts the “You” Talk feedback you just gave him, and he either is in a neutral state or may even negatively affect his self-esteem.

What about recipient focused feedback? Examine the “I” Talk version of the feedback used above, “I could tell you put a lot of effort into pronouncing the “m”– “a”– “t” sounds in the word ‘mat’.” If there is a positive relationship between you as the giver and with the recipient, then they know they like you and trust you. If YOU say they did well with a specific behavior, then they are left either believing you or having an internal dialogue. 

When those questioning moments came along I would ask, “Who did that?” and Steve would point at himself. Then I knew we had broken through his negative self-talk in his head.

What I can tell you is that Steve’s performance on producing consonant-vowel sounds improved more rapidly using “I” Talk than using other forms of feedback. He progressed to saying single words and soon could say his name, date of birth, and social security number.

Recognition Significance For You

I recommend that individuals in any walk of life or job position start using the “I” Talk format when giving praise, recognition, and positive feedback.

You will not only be giving more meaningful feedback and recognition to people but you will also be enhancing their self-esteem, which is intrinsically motivating.

Recognition Reflection: How much more meaningful and motivating is recognition you receive simply by the way the giver communicates it?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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