ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Mar 05, 2012

Watch Your Pronouns

One thing I find so refreshing about reading these ACA blogs is the use of pronouns. The most prominent pronouns used are the pronouns ‘I’ or ‘we’ referring to us as counselors. This makes sense because as counselors, our major subject is relationships and pronouns are the ‘bones’ of those relationships. Pronouns not only express relationships, they create them and hold them in place. For a person to change, they must ‘change their pronouns’.

My 9th grade English teacher pulled a fast one on us when she told us that pronouns are words that stand for nouns. Even the dictionary misdirects our attention when it defines a pronoun as a word ‘that stands in place of a noun.’ Often that is true with the third person—‘Bob, he’. But it is rarely the case with ‘I’, ‘we’, or ‘you’.

My first claim is that the use of ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’ almost always creates (or strengthens) the reality it refers to! To say ‘we, as counselors’ creates or at least strengthens our community. When I say, ‘you’, I am referring to a hypothetical construction I have created. That entity I refer to as ‘you’ is a collection of characteristics from my experiences of those elements I include in that ‘you’. The same is true when I say ‘I’. It is something I have created from those elements from this situation I decide to include in that construction. When ‘I’ say something to ‘you’, that ‘I’ is different from the ‘I’ that says something to another ‘you’—it has different feelings, thoughts, abilities, possibilities, etc. Just think how different ‘you’ are when you encounter a 6 month baby, a 15 year old boy or a 15 year old girl or a 70 year old woman, etc.

And this is my second claim: (and this one is what makes pronouns so insidious) each of these 3 personal pronouns assumes the existence of a relationship, that is, the existence of another entity—another pronoun! ‘We’ as counselors assume a ‘they’ as non-counselors. I’m sure each of us has personally experienced the power of this ‘we-they’. Carson referred to it in one of his recent blogs. It is a favorite for inspirational speakers because of its power. It is also a favorite of those who create psychological theories. But whenever I hear or read the word ‘we’, I almost always think, ‘What do you mean, we? You never asked me.’

The same assumptions and power are present in the ‘I’ – ‘you’ relationship. An ‘I’ cannot exist without a complementary ‘you’. The phrase ‘I think therefore I am’ makes no sense at all unless there is an assumed ‘you’ to whom he is speaking or writing (i.e., relating)—the phrase gets its meaning and force only by assuming the existence of an ‘I-you’ dyad.

Now since we as counselors are in the ‘relationship’ business, my use of pronouns with a client will determine to a large extent whether that client changes or remains the same. If I am aware of how my client and I use pronouns in the first 10 minutes after meeting for the first time, I can pretty much figure out how the client will try to avoid changing and how I need to use pronouns to invite change—how to ‘change their use of pronouns’. But I also must be clear on how I am using pronouns as I relate to them. As in a dance, the ‘you’ and ‘I’ in the ‘I-you’ dyad always move together as they respond to each other.

Eric Berne’s development of ego states in Transactional Analysis (TA) is an excellent explicit use of the power of this process. I fear that the force and importance of ego states in TA have been discounted because of some calling them ‘pop Freud’. The Parent, Adult and Child ego states in TA have almost nothing to do with Freud’s id, ego and super ego except that there are 3 of them just as there is the trinity in the Christian religion. In TA, ego states are observable clusters of behaviors. And through those behaviors, the ‘bones’ of relationships can be discerned like an x-ray of the body.

A counselor who uses TA is encouraged to tape each counseling session and listen to it to discern how both the client and the counselor use pronouns and how together their use might be keeping the client from changing. I would suggest that each of us do the same. If you have a ‘difficult’ client, tape a session and listen to it at least twice—the first time to identify how pronouns are used; the second time to identify what complementary pronoun are being assumed each time an explicit one is used. That is, whenever one person says ‘you’, think what ‘I’ is present also; and whenever ‘I’ is used, what ‘you’ is making its presence felt?

If the client says, ‘You really can’t trust men.’ there is an implied ‘I’ who told her that first. Perhaps it was her mother; perhaps it is merely herself and she needs to say ‘I really can’t trust men.’ In that case, what ‘you’ is she assuming. You see, if ‘You really can’t trust men’ then she has no power or responsibility to change that. If she says ‘I really can’t trust men’ then she has the opportunity to decide to say, instead, ‘I can trust some men in some situations’ and her relationships will change. The simple counseling technique here is to ask her to speak out loud the second statement and ask what she experiences. This will often bring to awareness the influence of others in her life which she can then deal with—the assumed “you’s” that she is ‘listening’ to and speaking to.

There are similar common and powerful techniques dealing with phrases such as ‘You (he) makes me so angry.’, ‘It’s hot in here.’, ‘We wouldn’t think of doing that.’, etc. By having the client change these so that he or she reclaims their own responsibility and power to change (rather than giving it away), the client can often quickly change. Those counseling theories coming from the work of Milton Erickson have made extensive use of this dimension of counseling. The Goulding’s collection of essays, The Power is in the Patient, is a convenient exploration of this aspect of relationships.

Besides the client’s skills at not changing through their use of pronouns, we as counselors can easily become co-conspirators in this endeavor. Our hypothetical construction of the ‘you’ we are counseling can contain elements guaranteed to keep the client (the you) from changing—or perhaps directing the change into what we are thinking and feeling and desiring. What we bring into the ‘I-you’ dyad of each counseling relationship will strongly influence the course of the counseling sessions. I was carefully taught in graduate school to respond differently to an 8 yr old girl vs. a 15 yr old boy, to a White Christian vs. a Black Muslim, to a 70 yr old man vs. a 25 yr old woman, etc. This was done by being required to study various counseling theories, multicultural studies, what to put in counseling notes, suggestions by my supervisor, assigning a DSM diagnostic category, etc. And nothing was taught about the ‘I-you’ dyad I actually was dealing with in each counseling situation. Almost nothing was taught about communication theory or pronouns as they structured the relationships present in the course of therapy.

Now with the new excitement about information from brain imaging informing counseling practice or the use of electronic communications, I get even more worried that counseling will be even more removed from what is actually going on in a counseling session. Certainly, the brain is an amazingly powerful muscle but it must never be conceptualized as the master—it is always the servant of what it is required to do. I always remind myself that those who are born without occipital lobes can develop normal visual functioning.

I hope this is enough to show you the importance I discern in our use of pronouns. And the bottom line is that our power as counselors is in helping change relationships and pronouns are the bones that can either prevent change or offer opportunities to move in another direction.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD'

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1 Comment

  1. 1 Barbara Mallory 08 Jul
         Thank you for this thoughtful discussion, Ray McKinnis. Your article came up when I did a search for: "change in personal pronouns when speaking of trauma." 
         Since moving from Canada to the US, I've noticed an interesting "I" to "you" switch when persons are speaking of traumatic or highly emotional personal experience. As a psychologist (retired), I find this intriguing, informative and of obvious clinical value.  This shift in pronouns appears consistent with a shift in state of consciousness -- a psychological step back from the intensity of first person experience to the safer distance of second person. I think it would be quite simple to collect data.  This pronoun-switch pattern is evident and frequent in every Dr. Phil show!  I'd be interested in your thoughts. 


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