We/They communication is a form of communicating information that takes the burden of responsibility for negative messages off of the message bearer. While it may not appear to be disrespectful, this form of communication seeks to make oneself appear better, while placing others in a negative light. This is most evident when considering that people rarely, if ever, use We/They language when what is being presented is positive. We/They language is primarily used to redirect responsibility when presenting negative information. The use of We/They communication can divide a district, pitting teachers and staff against administrators, eroding trust and creating a culture that is negative and even hostile.
Here is an anecdote that will better model what We/They language looks like:
To set the stage, let’s say that after much debate and discussion the school board has passed a policy that may not be looked upon favorably by the teachers. I know that this policy has potential to upset many, yet I have the responsibility of communicating this information to the teachers.
We/They language would present the information in this way:
“Unfortunately, I have to bring you all bad news. I know that we were all hoping this policy wouldn’t be passed, but the Board has decided to pass it. I am just as upset about it as you are, and if there were any way for me to change their minds, I would.”
This language serves to create an enemy. “We” are all on the same side. “We are fighting together. I am a part of the “We,” but “They” are against us. “They” don’t understand what is best. “They are unable to do what is right for us.
This type of language erodes trusts and creates an essence that says, “the ambiguous ‘they’ are not looking at the needs of others or considering how these decisions are impacting the group as a whole.” It creates the impression that this decision was made for selfish reasons and that the staff should not trust the Board’s ability to make decisions. In fact, communicating this way says “I would have made the right decisions, but we have an incompetent Board.” This divides a district. When a district is divided, it is difficult, if not impossible, to work effectively towards the common goal of providing an excellent education for our students. Because I have presented the Board as incompetent, staff in our district will view them in that way. This attitude will reveal itself through how they talk to each other, community members, parents and at times students. Division and a lack of trust creates a negative culture—one that is difficult for teachers to teach in, students to learn and one where parents find it difficult to have confidence that their students are receiving the best education available.
This form of communication plays out in significant ways. It has potential to be seen in how I talk about the Board, how the Board and Administrators talk about the ESC staff and me, and how teachers and staff talk about Administrators, etc.
Instead of communicating in a We/Then way, I could communicate negative information in this light:
“While I understand that many of you may be upset by this policy, much deliberation, time and energy has gone into deciding what would be best for you, as well as the school district as a whole. I understand that it may take time to adjust to; however, I trust that the Board has made a good decision, and we will strive to be accountable as we move forward in this way.”
When we choose not to engage in We/They language, we show that we support our district and that we believe in the work that is being done. When we communicate in positive ways, instead of We/They language, we show respect to the people around us, and we take responsibility for the change and initiatives taking place in our district.