If you’re like me, you’ve heard your fair share of comments from people who act like they mean well, yet treat you like you’re a moron. The easiest, and most personally satisfying, thing to do is slap them with a snappy comeback. However, that tends to perpetuate the problem because you get yourself stuck in a pointless argument.
When it comes to your career, it’s best to take the high road. For example, I had a boss who made me feel like I was crazy. Every time I’d come in with an idea or an implementation plan, he’d tell me to change it. I would argue the merits of my plan and be shut down, so I’d come back the next week with a shiny new idea (his idea). Instead of being floored by my brilliant implementation of his stupid idea, he’d look over the work, then look up at me to say, “Why did we do it this way?” The passive-aggressive thing really irked me and I often wanted to tell him where he could shove it. However, I tried to take the high road.
Whether I communicated with this boss by email or in person, I spoke calmly and used words that wouldn’t put him on the defensive. I tried to explain why I did something a certain way and I explained my choices in a way that avoided confrontation or finger-pointing. Even when I work with people I like, I’m bound to get annoyed by something, so I try to communicate without pointing out stupid mistakes.
So how can you avoid being a jerk while still getting your point across?
Add valid points. If you can, provide specific details. If you have proof and you can validate your point with an email message or a signed/approved document, your message will go even further. It’s the cover your ass (CYA) principle. If you want to argue something and win, you need to have proof that you’re right.
Revise before sending. Don’t leave a meeting, rush to your computer to craft a brilliant retort full of cuss words and threats, and then click Send. DON’T do that. After you create your message, step away for a bit, read, revise, and repeat.
Don’t assign blame. As a tech writer and instructional designer, you’ll rarely see me promoting passive voice, but it can be your best friend when you try to validate your own points without pointing fingers at others. For example, rather than saying, “You chose this image layout and it doesn’t fit the style of the course,” I might say, “The [chosen/standard] image layout limits the amount of detail that we can show in the images.”
Here’s another example of what I’m thinking versus what I’m going to say.
What I’m thinking: “I did it this way because you told me I had to. I told you why it was a bad idea to use a font size no one can read, but you ignored me. And now you’re complaining, you jackass.”
What I’m saying: “When we started the project, the expectation was to use 9-point font. We had a discussion on March 2 about using a larger font, but the standard remained 12-point Arial text.”
And if this doesn’t satisfy your need for revenge or a smart ass retort, you can use punctuation substitution. Check out Ze Frank’s video to learn how to use punctuation substitution to appease your business counterparts while still tasting the sweet satisfaction of smart ass-y-ness.