Why you need to stop writing from your own point of view


Robert’s frustration had been mounting for weeks. One of his work tasks depended on timely receipt of information from a coworker, Cliff, who was routinely late with the data.
Finally, Robert fired off an email: “Cliff, I can’t do my job when you are so slow in preparing the weekly report.”
Robert had read through it a couple of times before hitting send, and the statement seemed matter-of-fact to him. It succinctly communicated both (1) the problem Robert was facing and (2) its consequences.
It makes sense that anyone’s business writing would reflect their personal point of view. From emails to reports to sales materials, we want the intended audience to understand where we’re coming from. Further, many people have been socialized or trained to favor “I” statements over “you” statements in communication and conflict resolution situations. It’s such a popular framework for handling communications, the “I-message” even has its own Wikipedia page!
However, when we fail to adequately consider the readers’ point of view, our communications can suffer.
For example, Robert’s feedback might seem objective and unemotional – it’s just cold, hard fact, right? – but Cliff might read it very differently, given his unique point of view. For example, if Cliff perceives an accusatory tone to the feedback, he might react defensively. He’ll resist the valid criticism instead of correcting the behavior. It happens: Sendmail, a business email provider, conducted a study that found 64% of people have sent or received an email that caused unintended anger or confusion. Cliff may also have information that Robert doesn’t; for example, maybe it’s Susan who is always late giving Cliff what he needs.
Robert should certainly address this problem, and he’s correct in being straightforward, succinct and clear.
He should also take an additional moment to consider Cliff’s point of view. How will the tone strike him? What if Cliff has information – or priorities, work responsibilities, or other issues – that Robert doesn’t know about? It’s not that Robert should sugarcoat or dilute his message. Rather, he needs to think through his communication perspective to ensure his message will be interpreted in an effective way. That’s the key: considering the other’s point of view is a strategic step designed to ensure the message will have the desired effect.
This idea applies whether you’re writing to coworkers, customers, executives, colleagues, or anyone else. The process may not change what you want to say, but it might change how you say it. For example, Robert could use one or more of the following tactics.
  • De-personalize and focus on facts. “The weekly report routinely arrives after my own deadline.”
  • Be precise and don’t exaggerate. “The weekly report has been late four of the past six weeks.”
  • Focus on the shared experience. “Our work depends on each other, so let’s work together to improve this process.”
  • Reframe in terms of the reader’s needs. “Do you need any help? If there are roadblocks, how can I help you solve them?”
  • Investigate if there’s something you don’t know. “Do you have everything you need to complete the weekly report on time?”
Many other tactics could work as well. For more information about points of view in writing and how to make your communications more effective, contact us.

Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.