Speak for Yourself

September 17, 2014 Updated: April 24, 2016

Over the years, I’ve listened to thousands of business people in conversations ranging from one-on-ones to those in front of audiences of several thousand. 

A common speech phenomenon is “universal speaking.” This involves speaking for others as if we are all the same. It’s innocent enough, except it clouds our speech and tends to inadvertently alienate others. 

I’ve heard people switch almost mid-sentence, shifting from speaking for the “I” to speaking for the universal “we” or “you.” 

We’re often told to use inclusive speech, to include others in the conversation. For example, instead of saying, “You need to set meaningful goals,” we might say, “It’s important we set meaningful goals,” thus including both the speaker and the listeners. 

This is good advice. However, when we use universal speaking, if we assume that we are all the same, it can be a dangerous habit. 

In one of my early experiences working with a business coach, I stated, quite authoritatively: “Life is hard, it’s a battle!” My coach pointed out, “For you.” 

I missed his point, so I added: “You’ve got to fight for results, push hard. That’s the way life is!” “For you,” he repeated. 

I finally caught on. Notice he didn’t argue by saying, “No, life is not like that.” This might have engaged us in a “right/wrong” conversation, perhaps elevating to a heated debate. 

He told me: “Speak for yourself—I speak for me, you speak for you.” 

Everyone sees things through his or her own filters of life experiences, views of the world, interpretations, etc. Like it or not, most of us are thinking from the perception of interpreting what we see. 

One innocent use of universal speaking often occurs during a friend’s or relative’s tragic moment. The worst thing we can say is, “I know how you feel.” We want to be empathetic, but we often inadvertently distance ourselves. We don’t know for certain how others feel, and they know it. 

Instead, try, “We are here for you. Let us know if there is anything we can do for you.” This is only one approach. There are many others.

In sports interviews and movies people often switch to the third person. For example, “When you’re so far behind it plays tricks on your mind. You can’t think clearly.” 

This is true for some, but not universally true. Being behind in a sport often energizes athletes and spurs them on to concentrate. By using universal speaking, we distance ourselves from reality and minimize our chances of thinking clearly. 

The above athlete could say, “Up until now, when I got behind on points I tended to panic and allowed myself to get bluffed out. Today, I choose to focus on the task at hand, making adjustments to my game based on what is really going on here and now.” 

Notice this gives him or her a chance to refocus on reality.

Of course, the time to think of this is not during critical moments, but before life hands us challenges. We develop this competency first through awareness—observing how others use universal speaking, then reviewing our own thoughts and disciplining ourselves to clean up our speech. 

The good news is that, once we hear ourselves using universal language, we will no longer “not” hear it. 

It’s not egotistical to speak for ourselves with phrases like, “In my view …” or “The way I see this is …” 

Ask others for their views, such as, “What is your view? How are you experiencing this?” 

I believe you’ll be amazed at the possibilities that open up when listening to others’ views rather than falling into the speaking-for-others trap.