Say You, Say Me


That's right: We are getting into word puns with 80s lyrics*. You can expect more of this. I may not be able to stop. Music often says it all.

Notice what I did there: As writers, we can shift emphasis around by putting different people or things into the "who" part of our sentence. In the above examples, we, you, I, and music get to do different things and get to receive our readers' attention.

We always have that ability to shift focus around as writers. But how can this help us during negative writing situations?

In recent classes, I've been getting a lot of questions about how to convey negative information without sounding (or feeling!) "mean." Times are stressful and many of us worry about how to write clear, sometimes negative information, without harming the relationships we hold with our readers. One great way to manage writing about negative information is to really focus on, and control, when we do or don't "say you."

We need to be pretty darn choosy about when we "say you." In fact, we often need to use both "you" and "your" carefully when the topic at hand is negative. Here's why:

Imagine you receive one of the following two sentences in an email. Take a read through, focusing on your gut emotional reaction as you read:

  • “Because you uploaded the wrong file, we’re behind on the process.”

  • “In this briefing, you failed to account for last quarter’s WFH numbers.”

  • "The results we got from following your suggestion were not positive."

I don't know about you, but I find myself feeling a bit defensive when I read those sentences. I feel like a finger's pointing my way, and I want to shout, "But I tried!" in response.

Avoiding Defensive Responses

What happens when a conversation starts with something like we see above? Do things just grow and develop from there, becoming amazingly productive and constructive? Probably not. Once anyone in a conversation gets on the defensive—even if it's only one person—that conversation's heading in a different, less productive direction.

So how can we prevent defensive reactions when we need to write about negative information or provide a criticism in writing? After all, we don't want to candy-coat anything, or become inauthentic by trying to be overly "nice" and/or by avoiding stating the actual problem directly. Can we give someone negative feedback without hurting either their feelings or our relationships with them?

Certainly! One strategy we can apply? Adjust our use of "you," based on whether the topic is positive or negative. Here are a couple comparison examples:

"You" When Positive: The strategies you presented helped us streamline the process.

"You" When Positive: Since you updated the filing system, we’ve saved time.

No "You" When Negative: We streamlined the process, but we found Strategy C added confusion.

No "You" When Negative: This file needs to be updated to align with our new system.

The first two sentences embrace the use of "you" since we're giving the reader a compliment. The second, on the other hand, don't lie, but they don't accuse either. Instead, the shift the focus away from the reader—away from the "you."

Using a "Product Over Person" Approach

My favorite way to remember and apply this strategy is to focus on using Product Over Person. Instead of allowing blame to land on people (readers), we can shift the responsibility and focus onto the topic or product at hand.

Check out the way we can toggle focus from the person who made a mistake (in these examples) to the product that includes a mistake:

Person: You didn’t provide a detailed chronology in the appendix.

Product: This report’s appendix needs a detailed chronology.

Person: You didn’t address an Operations perspective in your email.

Product: This email should include an Operations perspective.

These examples show us how we can convey accurate information, including criticisms, without creating an accusation or putting our readers in a bad spot. We can still write authentically, but just shift the emotional focus within our sentences. This strategy often leads to conversations that aren't mired in a blame game, but instead move forward into creating solutions.


*Thanks, Lionel Richie.

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