I’ve got a bad habit in some of my interactions. It breaks my own rules about showing respect, recognizing that I don’t know everything, and giving people full control over their own choices.

I was reminded of it recently one evening during rush hour in Penn Station. I passed a very tall fellow who was hollering into his phone, “You know what you need to do…” as if he meant it as a question. But he clearly wasn’t asking, he was telling. It took me aback, because I say it all the time: “You know what you need to do…”

When I heard him say it, I realized just how off-putting, dispiriting, and demoralizing those words could be — even if they’re said with what’s (theoretically) a sweeter, more upbeat inflection.

Watch Your Words

The guy striding through Penn Station was ordering the person on the other end of the call to do something. Which is something I’ve done many times — even if, in my defense, I was truly trying to be helpful and took a more supportive tone than he was taking. (For me, telling someone what they need to do probably comes from the same impulse as the one that causes my daughter to say, “Okay, Mom, you don’t have to consult to me right now.”)

But the listener rarely feels motivated by the phrase “You need to” or its marginally kinder cousins, “You know what you need to…” and “You know what you need to do? You need to…” These phrases can come across as judgmental, blameful, and punitive. They suggest that the listener is inadequate in some way, perhaps for not having taken care of something already, or for being too stupid to have known what to do.

This language can also imply that the listener has already messed up — and doesn’t really merit having any choice or control going forward. (See the aforementioned stupidity.) So the recommendation that follows “You need to” can seem like coercion instead of a great idea.

Pressuring people — purposefully or inadvertently — rarely works in the long term. It makes them feel uncomfortable and resentful, even if the speaker is actually offering sound advice. The speaker comes across as knowing better, and therefore as patronizing the listener.

When your language indicates enforcement or disdain, it won’t help or make a difference. It won’t show empathy. It won’t show compassion. And it’s likely to be rejected by the listener, silently if not out loud.

Ineffective Interchanges

Unfortunately, the phrase “You need to” is frequently used in customer service interactions, often when a rep is trying to explain policy requirements or the mistake a customer made in processing an order.

And what’s usually the typical customer’s natural reaction, whether internal or voiced? “Nah. No way. I do not need to.”

An observer of the service transaction can sense a customer’s rising tide of anger and frustration. That’s often followed by customers digging in their heels as if to say, “Oh, no, Sport, I don’t need to do a damn thing. You do!”

Preferred Phraseology

So what works better than “You need to…”?

  • “Would you please [do X]?”
  • “You might want to consider [approach Y].”
  • “You could try [alternative Z].”

Do you suffer from this ineffective communication habit, too? If you’d like to make a change, you might want to consider giving up saying “You need to,” and switching to some other phraseology instead. That’s what I’ll be working on!