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Negotiating with writers, managers and others

By far the greatest number of questions I’m asked about technical editing are actually about management issues, the role of the editor, how to handle writer-editor relationships, and similar personnel issues.

Even in organizations where the chain of command is clearly defined, relationship problems are common. (Not that this is unique to editing, by any means!) All organizations have some “difficult people”—and often have managers who evade their duty to deal with them. In many cases, the difficult person is the manager.

The only thing you can do in such a situation (other than leaving) is to learn as much as you can about negotiation, persuasion, motivating and influencing people—and put what you learn into practice.

Obviously you also need to be armed with the relevant facts, but logic and facts are usually not enough. You also need to know how to present your argument in a way that has meaning for your audience (management, other writers, and so on).

Sometimes a confrontational atmosphere is so thoroughly established in an organization that you can’t change it, short of firing a bunch of people (not practical when the problem is your boss). Most situations, however, aren’t that bad—they’re more a problem of apathy, or priority (people being too busy to deal with personnel issues), or ignorance (“I had no idea that was a problem”), or some other (often unconscious) attitude that isn’t one of deliberately being difficult.

It’s fairly easy to set out some principles of the editor-writer relationship (see, for example, Beyond copy-editing: the editor-writer relationship and other articles referenced from the About Technical Editing page on my Web site), but putting these principles into practice can sometimes be a challenge.

If your manager doesn’t support you when you insist that a writer must pay attention to what you say, and the writer declines to pay attention, you have a problem. Your best bet to solving that problem is to convince all concerned that they are better off listening to you than not listening to you—that they want to listen to you and follow your instructions.

Easy to say, but often not easy to do. A friend of mine, who knows a lot more about business than I do (she used to be a technical writer, but is now involved in business brokerage, venture capital, and other stuff with lots of numbers after the dollar sign), keeps reminding me that if you’re trying to sell something (an idea, your services, a product, a business, whatever) you have to answer three questions in your audience’s mind: “So what?” “Who cares?” and “What’s in it for me?”

To do that, you have to speak in language that has meaning for your audience. And to do that, you need to understand about different listening and learning styles.

Rather than launching into a long essay on the subject, I’m going to refer you to some books that helped me learn a lot about dealing with these situations. Many of these books fall into a general category of “popular psychology,” which is sneered at by a lot of people (often those who have the most to learn, in my experience). Of the many books I’ve read, some discuss the topics in ways that are useful to me; others don’t. Your reaction to them may be quite different from mine.

Unfortunately, some of my favorite books are out of print, but plenty are still available. I’ve put a list on my Resources page, as well as mentioning some of them here.

An excellent place to start is:

Personality Plus: How to Understand Others by Understanding Yourself, by Florence Littauer, 1992, ISBN 080075445X.

If you haven’t yet been introduced to the concept of the four basic personality types (sanguine, melancholy, phlegmatic, choleric), this book can be a real eye-opener. It’s also a delight to read.

Other authors have dealt with the same concepts, sometimes calling the personality types by slightly different names, but the principle is the same.

Once you learn how to recognise the different personality types, you’ll realize that some people aren’t being deliberately difficult, they simply have a quite different view of the world than you do. Neither is right or wrong; they’re just different. You need to learn different persuasive techniques to deal most effectively with the different personality types.

Another enlightening concept is that of the three sensory modes: sight, hearing and touch, which affect how a person processes information.

One of my favorite authors is Dr. Suzette Haden Elgin, a linguist, who has published a series of books on “the gentle art of verbal self-defense.” She discusses the sensory modes and provides techniques for recognising them and presenting your message in terms that are meaningful to people responding in each of the modes.

Dr. Elgin’s books that are most closely related to work situations are:

Success with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-defense (1989), Prentice-Hall, ISBN 0136886810

BusinessSpeak: Using the gentle art of verbal persuasion to get what you want at work (1995), McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0070200009 (Out of stock)

How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable: Getting Your Point Across With the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense (1997), John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0471157058

Many authors have written about the difference in typical male and female patterns of speech and group relationships. For example:

Genderspeak: Men, Women, and the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, by Suzette Haden Elgin (1993), John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0471580163

Genderflex: Men & Women Speaking Each Other’s Language at Work, by Judith C. Tingley (1994), AMACOM, ISBN 0814402666

He Says She Says: Closing the Communication Gap Between the Sexes, by Lillian Glass (1995), Perigee, ISBN 0399518126

Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex, and Power, by Deborah Tannen (1995), Avon Books, ISBN 0380717832

And here are some general books on dealing with difficult people. There are many more!

Dealing With People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, by Rick Brinkman, Rick Kirschner, Rich Brinkman (1994), McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0070078386

Difficult People: How Deal With Impossible Clients, Bosses and Employees, by Roberta Cava (1997), Firefly Books, ISBN 1552091252

The Anatomy of Persuasion: How to Persuade Others to Act on Your Ideas, Accept Your Proposals, Buy Your Products or Services, Hire You, Promote you, by Norbert Aubuchon (1997), AMACOM, ISBN 0814479529

Leadership and the Art of Conversation: Conversation As a Management Tool, by Kim H. Krisco (1997), Prima Publishing, ISBN 0761510303

‘I Wish I’d Said That!’: How to Talk Your Way Out of Trouble and into Success, by Linda McCallister (1997), John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0471176877

If you want to get seriously into leadership issues (I’m a great believer in leadership, not management, even if I’m not terribly good at it), one of the best is John C. Maxwell, who has written a lot of books on success and leadership. Try these:

Developing the Leader within You (1993), ISBN 0840767447

Developing the Leaders around You (1995), ISBN 0840767471

Related reading

See my page Take control of your attitude for some books on attitude, identifying and achieving your goals, and related issues

Last updated 2 June 2002