Speaking Unpleasant Truths Aloud

“Hey, you’re wrong!”
“The correct way to contradict a Senator is to say ‘That turns out not to be the case’.”
–The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

“Their decision is stupid! You know it and I know it.”
“Yes, but you can’t say it that way.”
“Why not?”
–Bar conversation between me and a coworker re: management feedback

Once upon a time, I considered a career in the Foreign Service, partly because I was interested in the notion of living and traveling overseas, and partly because I spent an inordinate amount of my time “translating” one form of communication into another or because I was offering more diplomatic ways of phrasing something. I flunked the Foreign Service entry exam, but that’s another story. The reason this alternate career path is relevant is that if you have some skill in diplomacy, it will go a long way toward smoothing the way when things in your workplace are not so smooth.

Offering Negative Feedback

There comes that moment in every writer’s career where someone who is not a professional communicator thinks they can do a better job than you and proceeds to prove otherwise. Sometimes, but not always, this person is at a higher rank in the pecking order than you. How do you break it to them that…well…their work could use a little rewriting?

Several methods exist for addressing this situation. Not all of them are comfortable, and not all of them will work for you or your particular situation. What follows are a set of tactics for getting the result you want without anyone getting upset with you even if you’re right.

  • Offer the feedback privately: There are less savvy ways to irritate the boss than by calling out in a meeting where they’re presenting, “Hey, that’s misspelled!” but I’d be hard-pressed to name one off the top of my head. If you know that your supervisor/manager/customer has spelling or grammar “challenges,” the best time to offer that feedback is either before the product is going out the door (especially print or email) or after it has been delivered (as in the case of a presentation). Before, obviously, is better in most situations, but calling out the error before others is a quick way to a long and painful discussion.
  • Offer to collaborate, not correct: Yes, it is entirely possible that your intent is to correct the boss’s spelling or grammar, and they might know it, too. However, if you’ve managed to develop a reputation for putting words together well, “collaboration” is better than “correction.” And you might offer suggestions that go beyond mechanics and emphasize content, tone, or flow. Just a word of caution that some folks will refuse your edits just because they don’t like taking direction from a subordinate. That also goes back to tone. Telling someone in authority over you what to do in a tone that says they’re stupid is not a great way to get them to take your suggestions.
  • Your reputation is on the line, too: There are organizations where a manager will give a presentation that they did not write, but which they must present because it’s part of their job responsibility. That doesn’t mean they won’t have any input beforehand–they might–but often others in the room know who their amanuensis is, and if something is wrong on the PowerPoint chart, the presenter will take some ribbing from his/her audience…as will you. The bottom line is, it’s a quality issue, and should be a matter of professional pride on your part. The boss deserves your best effort, and if you value your reputation, you need to give it. So yes, that means offering to help put together a customer’s presentation or at least do a quick review prior to delivery (the term one friend coined was “Bartizing”).
  • Two “But, sir”s and a “Yes, sir”: I got this from a friend who spent part of her career in the Army. She was a professional communication as well and could tell when something her superior officers (often male) were about to do something incorrectly. She would try twice to suggest why he should do things her way, and if the colonel, general, whoever, still insisted on doing it his way, she’s salute, say “Yes, sir!” and let the officer take the consequences. The point being, again using a military turn of phrase, pick your battles. For a briefing involving two or three people inside your company, a “happy to glad” change isn’t worth raising hell for; a full-color, high-quality annual report that goes to thousands of stockholders deserves a little escalation.

Disagreeing with a Decision

As kids, if we asked Mom or Dad (or anyone in authority) for something, the answers were usually Yes, No, Maybe, or Not Now. You know how you reacted if it was one of the latter three–you’d whine, nag, or throw a temper tantrum. Eventually, you learned what form of argument worked best with your particular parent(s). You might even get logical and creative, like the kid on the Windows commercial who used his PC to argue for getting a puppy.

Okay, so maybe that approach might not work with the puppy (or getting permission to play golf on Sundays), but it often works better in the workplace. Here’s the essence of arguing when working to change a manager’s mind:

  • Don’t yell, whine, or nag: Yeah, all the kid stuff? Don’t do that. Quick way to get on the boss’s nerves and get not just a no, but a “Hell, no!”
  • Speak their language: This means a couple things. First, it means communicating in a way that works best for them. It also means framing your argument(s) in terms that match the boss’s needs or interests. Example from my Disney life: the room assignment desk had been griping for a week that reservations coming from one particular organization did not include any notations about requests for connecting rooms. The GenX method of using passive-aggressive griping and whining (surprise) was not working. So someone got the bright idea of printing out the full list of guests we had in-house from that organization and how many of them requested connecting rooms but didn’t receive them because it wasn’t noted in their reservation. This the manager understood–it was a service issue, our primary business–and that got her on the phone to the appropriate department to get the problem fixed.
  • Don’t insult them: Note the quotation at the top of this essay. This should be a no-brainter, but telling someone, especially someone in authority over you, that they’re ignorant or stupid for not doing things your way is incredibly ineffective. But it still happens.
  • Understand your supervisor’s span of control: There are things you might want on the job that are not feasible for any number of reasons–they’re not company policy, they’re too expensive, they’re not physically or technically possible, they’re unethical or illegal, or they’re “above their pay grade.” So rather than just get upset about the “no,” understand why the boss is saying no to your request. After that, you might have to change your tactics, change whom you ask, or change your mind about what you want. If it’s a straightforward company policy issue, and even your boss is unhappy about it, maybe you can strategize with him/her about how to go about changing the minds of the higher-ups. That’s got to beat yelling, whining, and nagging, right?

Concluding Thoughts on Speaking Unpleasant Truths Aloud

I’m always surprised and horrified when I encounter individuals who try to argue their point–any point–while using a whining, nagging, or condescending tone. Their method of argument and the personal reactions the method creates pretty much guarantee that no one will take their suggestion even if it is correct because the individual articulating them is so irritating or offensive. And really, if you know a particular method of argument or “persuasion” wouldn’t work in a business document, why would you use it in a non-business setting? Again, it happens, but that doesn’t mean you have to be that guy/gal.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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