When you’re working on some words with a colleague, or many colleagues, and there’s disagreement about what the words should be, the best way to overcome it is with verbal, spoken conversation. Not email. Most of the time, that’s the worst way to solve disagreement. About anything, including words.
In most cases, the cause of the disagreement is lack of clarity. Even though the original author might think their words are crystal clear, other people might not read them the same way, or have the same pre-existing mental picture of the circumstances.
Many organisations try to fix this with email tennis: Person B tries to write their own version of Person A’s draft. Person A disagrees, rewrites it and sends it back. Person B doesn’t understand why Person A didn’t agree. Meanwhile, Person C (who’s been away for a few days) chips in with their version of the original – now there are 2 different strands of changes flying around.
This way madness lies. There’s a better way.
As soon as it’s clear that there’s some disagreement, arrange a call.
Get as many people as you need on that call, and discuss the words. Give Person A a chance to explain why they chose the words in the first draft. Give Person B a chance to explain what they don’t think is clear, and why.
The context really matters. Very often, knowing why someone has written something a certain way, and knowing why they didn’t consider another way, helps smooth over the disagreements quickly. Quite often, people doing editing have already tried several alternatives and discarded them for all sorts of reasons – but the author doesn’t see that. They just see the most recent version, and no context for it.
So: have a conversation about the words. Let people explain the reasons why they want to retain or delete or change particular words of phrases.
Most disagreements are about small details, not the whole piece. Sometimes all that’s needed are very small changes: change one word, remove one line, re-arrange one paragraph.
Sometimes, you might need to do a very quick pair-writing session. That means you put the words where everyone can see them simultaneously (eg, in a shared online document) and one person writes, while constantly checking with colleagues for clarity and accuracy:
“Can we say it like this?”
“No, because of reason x .”
“Ahhh, I see the problem. How about this instead? Yeah? Cool.”
I’m weird because I like email as a means of asynchronous communication, but we all know it has flaws. It’s hard to disagree by email and still sound reasonable. Nuances get lost, emotions tend to run high too fast, and things can get messy after that.
Getting people to talk is far more effective, because it’s much easier to explain not only *what you disagree with* but also *why you feel that way*.
When the people you’re disagreeing with understand why, it’s *much* easier for them to understand your position, and consequently for everyone to take steps towards compromise.
Disagreeing about words isn’t rare (happens pretty much every week for me), but it doesn’t have to be difficult and it doesn’t have to cause drama. Talking things through is the best method I’ve found.
Filed under: work
(5 February 2021)