January 18, 2018

Is Your Professor Holding Up a Stop Sign When You Speak? (Hint: Try an “I”!)

Try an I - Photo copyright 2011 Rick Sherrell

The next time you are in an argument with someone, I want you to do me a favor. Ready?

Make a mental tally of how many times the word “you” is thrown around by yourself or your communication partner.

(I know what you’re thinking: “Um, Ellen, a little too busy fighting here to think about how I’m doing it!”)

Okay. I’ll buy that. Let’s try again:

Think about your last argument. How many times did you or the other person take ownership of your thoughts, feelings, ideas, anger, etc. by starting off with the word “I”? Do you remember more “you’s” being hurled?

For people who toss around the word “you” as a steady part of their “vocabulary diet”, those communication habits don’t typically change with location or people. Specifically, once college students have to confront a professor, here are some typical “you” phrases that emerge:

  • “You gave me a D on that assignment!”
  • “You didn’t tell me I was missing essay #3.”
  • “Your lectures are boring.”

Notice what they all start with?

With professors, or anyone, why isn’t “I” the rule, rather than the exception? Well, it’s not easy or fun to ask ourselves:

“What did I do to contribute to this situation?”


“What could I have done differently?”


“What do I think/feel about what’s going on here?”

These are deep questions, for sure! Sometimes, using “I” language requires us to reveal more than we want to. Expressing how confused, scared, concerned, or fearful we are means that we are exposed!

Likewise, isn’t it so much easier and so much more convenient to place blame externally? It has to be your professor’s fault that an assignment didn’t earn the desired grade, that a project was late because of failure to schedule enough time on task, that a lack of listening is really the culprit for information not remembered.

Think about it, though… Isn’t your professor so much more likely to want to help you if you come from a place of humility and ownership–not from a place of defensiveness and blame? People aren’t really listening to us after we “harshly start” with the word “you.” Instead, they are mentally gearing up to defend themselves.

Speaking of the mental piece, you’re probably wondering about the stop sign reference in this post’s title. Our mind and body reacts when someone “you’s” us. Pay attention to your body the next time you hear that simple word without knowing what’s coming next: Do you feel like you want to cover your face? Your head? Crouch down? Look away? Put your hand up like a stop sign?

Even if another person is about to say, “You look very nice today,” the minute we hear “you,” we don’t fully relax until we know what’s going to follow that dreaded word. So, even if the person is smiling, they are waiting for the bomb to explode and their mental stop sign is very much raised.

So next time you need to confront your professor—or any person—give “I” a try!

(And just so I am covering everything, saying, “I think that you suck” is not what I’m talking about).

Let’s give those above student-prof phrases a do-over:

Old: “You gave me a D on that assignment!”

New: “I am very concerned about the D that I received. I wasn’t expecting to do so poorly. Can you explain where I went wrong?” or “Can you explain your comments more thoroughly?”

Old: “You didn’t tell me I was missing essay #3.”

New: “I see that I am missing the grade for my last writing assignment. Would you please look and see if it was graded?” or “I’m certain that I uploaded my paper. I have a record of it. I’m worried that you didn’t receive it because I’m not seeing a grade. Can you please let me know?”

Old: “Your lectures are boring.”

New: “I’m struggling with the lecture format of this class. Can we take time to ask some more questions?”

I’m hardly saying that changing up your “you” language to “I” language is going to be simple or easy, but you will find that profs will a) more easily identify your problem and help you out; and b) have more respect for you taking responsibility for your actions and owning your thoughts.

Are you ready to give “I” a try?

About the Author: Ellen Bremen (17 Posts)

Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty at Highline Community College and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success (NorLights Press, April 2012). Ellen stops at nothing to help students strengthen their communication skills: Peanut butter and jelly to illustrate problematic messages, pipe cleaners to teach communication models, and Post-it notes to reduce speaking anxiety. Ellen holds degrees in Post-Secondary Education and Communication. As an interpersonal communication expert, Ellen has watched students struggle to navigate their classes, especially their communication with professors. Ellen's goal? To help students correctly--not cluelessly--speak/deal with those who teach them. The outcome? Better student-prof relationships, improved grades, and confident and competent communication skills for college and beyond. Ellen's philosophy: College is THE safe training ground for students to practice and hone assertive and professional communication skills. Then, students can transition this sought-after skill to their professional and personal lives. Ellen looks forward to answering students' simple and complex questions about communication in college, and particularly professor-related challenges.


  1. The next time you are in an argument with someone, I want you to do me a favor. Ready? http://ow.ly/5OGX0 #collegehelp #professors

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