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Pursue Peace

Today is a national holiday in the United States: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  Dr. King was a peace activist and a passionate advocate for social justice and racial equality. He was born on January 15, 1929, and assassinated on April 4, 1968.

The holiday in celebration of Dr. King’s life gives me an opportunity to think about peace and how to contribute, even in very small ways, to peace in the world.

Here are seven ways to spread peace and understanding through our business writing:

  1. Connect with the reader by using his or her name, even in email. Instead of diving right into the subject, say Hi, Good morning, or Dear ______ (name). Recognize the other person as a human being. Leave out bland statements such as "Thank you in advance for your cooperation." Instead, write "Julie, thank you so much for taking care of this for me."
  2. Forgive and forget the silly mistakes people make in their messages. Last week I received an email by mistake. It was about me, but it was inadvertently sent to me. The message was just one sentence that talked about "blowing her off." (Translation of "blow off": get rid of.) Rather than fume over it, I laughed heartily and long.
  3. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Put yourself in his or her place. I was able to laugh about the situation above because I knew that I might have written something similar if I had been in the other person’s position. And I would hope not to send it to the wrong person!
    Miscommunication happens often. When something goes wrong, assume the best. Rather than thinking that the other person intended harm, assume that something was merely misstated, mistaken, or awkwardly handled. Then phone the other person to ask for clarification. See my post "With Your Knickers in a Knot" for one example of how to resolve a negative situation.
  4. Do no harm. Avoid sending messages that hurt people’s feelings, put them down, or harm them in some way. If you are angry, go for a walk, relax with a cup of tea, eat a popsicle, look at majestic nature photos, or do whatever will help to eliminate your bad mood. Do not spread anger. Do not build yourself up by diminishing others–it never succeeds.
  5. Communicate negative messages kindly. When you have to say no, say it kindly. Use phrases like these:
    –I wish I could say yes to your request.
    –I’m sorry that I cannot comply.
    –If there were any way I could make this happen, I would.

    For an example of what not to do, see my post "When Writing Is Cruel."
  6. Apologize. If you have made a mistake or acted unwisely, apologize in writing. Use words like these:
    I am very sorry about how I reacted in our phone conversation yesterday. When I heard the figures, I was sure they were wrong. Now I know that your figures were completely accurate.
    Next time I will do my best to check my facts and figures before questioning yours. Please accept my apology.
    If you have had a misunderstanding with someone, write an apology even if you haven’t done anything wrong. You can use words like "I apologize for the part I played in our misunderstanding." Even if your relationship with the other person doesn’t improve, you can feel an inner peace from having reached out in humility.
  7. Refuse to comply if you are instructed to do something unjust or untruthful in your documents. Refuse to include false data. Refuse to send out documents that you know are inaccurate. Refuse to be cruel in writing.
    Although this step is much harder than the ones above, it has huge potential for spreading equality, justice, and peace in the world.   

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of a day when people would be judged by the "content of their character" rather than the color of their skin. Consider the content of your letters, email, and other documents. Wage peace!

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.