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Cowardly vs. Courageous Communication

In today’s Seattle Times I read the advice columns "Miss Manners," by Judith Martin, and "Ask Amy," by Amy Dickinson. Their advice illustrates a topic I wrote about in this month’s Better Writing at Work: cowardly vs. courageous communication.

Responding to a supervisor who asked for advice on handling negative comments about her appearance, comments that come from older workers who report to her, Miss Manners recommended sending an office-wide memo stating that "professional conduct prohibits making personal comments about colleagues." She recommended that memo even though only two people of seven who report to the supervisor make the comments. Miss Manners suggested that once the memo went out, the supervisor could then "issue a gentle reminder about professional behavior" the next time someone criticized her appearance.

In "Ask Amy," the writer wanted advice on how to handle someone who talks too much–always about herself. Amy recommended using this direct approach: "Susan, sometimes I get frustrated trying to talk to you because I feel as if our conversations all go one way–you telling me your problems and me listening. Can we do things differently?"

To me, one approach is cowardly; the other, courageous. Which is which?

Reading the office-wide memo, the innocent will think the supervisor is wasting her time and theirs with her memo that states the obvious. The guilty are likely to titter about it. It will not succeed, and it’s cowardly.

The direct comment and question "Can we do things differently?" are wonderfully strong and clear. They open up a dialog about behavior and expectations.

Miss Manners is clever and always mannerly, but Amy’s approach would work better in the supervisor’s situation.

Do you agree?

Syntax Training

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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.

One comment on “Cowardly vs. Courageous Communication”

  • I think you nailed it! I love your Courageous vs. Cowardly angle–it has really altered my thinking about business communication.

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