Why positive statements will serve you better

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 15, 2011 - 2:27 PM

I enjoy hearing from you, my readers, but often when you write with your comments and questions you fail to proofread your text. I'm surprised by your carelessness.

Hold on, hold on. Let me say that another way.

I really enjoy hearing from you, my readers, even when you make occasional errors. The important thing is that you take the time to tell me what you're thinking.

Yes, that's better.

Have you ever worked with someone with a knack for putting things in the negative? I suspect those people don't intend to come across as critical or angry, but that's the impression they give. I wonder if the problem is that they have developed some bad habits in the form of negative speech patterns. As a result, they come across as negative people.

For example, compare "You neglected to order refreshments for last week's staff meeting" with "Don't forget to order refreshments for this week's meeting." The first statement refers to a past failure; the second offers a gentle reminder.

If you can't understand what I'm saying, maybe I can put it in simpler language for you.

Oops, there I go again. What I meant to say was, I'm not sure I'm explaining this concept very well. Let me offer a few more examples.

Are you still missing the point? How many times do I have to explain it to you?

As you can see, in those examples of negative language, certain words create a condescending, insulting, even sarcastic tone. When these statements appear to question a person's intelligence, competence or ethics -- three points of particular sensitivity -- they are almost certain to offend the person to whom they are addressed.

So, what's wrong with the following statements?

"Why can't you understand this?"

"If you would pay closer attention when processing these orders, you wouldn't make so many mistakes."

"I can't believe you complained to Sue without talking to me first."

The first example questions the reader's intelligence, the second the reader's competence and the third the reader's ethics. In the third example, the implication is that a more ethical person or more loyal friend would have talked to the writer first.

But what do you do when in fact someone is not acting intelligently, competently or ethically?

I'm not suggesting you should never be direct; I'm suggesting that, regardless of how direct you choose to be, you can avoid language that offends.

Consider these statements:

"This is a complicated procedure. It's important you understand every step."

"Please take special care when processing these orders. A misplaced order can cost us a customer."

"Sue tells me you're unhappy about the new assignment. I want to know what you're thinking. Please be direct with me."

Compare the last sentence, "Please be direct with me," with this one: "Why can't you be direct with me?" The former is a simple request; the latter can be answered only with a negative admission ("Because I'm a coward" or "Because I'm a devious person").

Prefer the positive.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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