I recently discussed ways in which we can avoid conflict when editing (or being edited) in a blog post called ‘It ain’t what we say’. You might think of today’s post as something of a follow-up, though it has applications in the real world too.
Working relationships are delicate things, and they do sometimes break down. That’s bad enough in retail, but the editing relationship simply cannot exist in the absence of trust and mutual respect. So, what do you do if it starts to goes wrong?
In general terms, there are two options (i) swallow whatever unpleasantness you feel and push on through, or (ii) get to the heart of the issue and seek to resolve it.
I spent literal decades bottling things up at work. It can get you through in the short-term – when you just need to reach the end of the day – but stress-fractures start to form after a while. Wounds begin to fester. Work becomes a daily battleground, filled with spite and resentment.
For me, it was a bad coping-strategy. It wore me down, turned me bitter inside, and I used to get pretty damned savage when things overwhelmed me. It hurt my reputation, several key relationships and during the worst year of my working life some – 16 years ago now – it put a significant strain on my marriage.
Here’s the good news:
If you’re smart enough to realise there’s a problem, you can do something about it.
Alternatives to combat!
I’ve pulled together a few useful tips for facing up to the situation and laying it to rest in positive, constructive ways. I hope they help some of you, either in your own lives or in dialogue with your editors, should the road get rocky.
When there’s tension, I’ve found that it always helps to consider my own culpability. What is it that I’m not budging on, and just how valid is my reasoning? Everybody has a perspective, after all. If I’m the bad-guy to somebody else, I need to understand why – and this is before I respond; I don’t want to make things worse. So I think about what I have said, how I have said it, and whether my practices match my ideals.
Tip: I find it very useful to read (and re-read) all of my e-mails, direct messages, comments and responses before sending them. I check them for tone and for content. My aim is always to add value or to at least minimise harm.
2. Act in good faith.
Misunderstandings can happen on both sides. Bad days can lead to short tempers, and that can lead to some pretty poor choices of words. Sometimes people snap at me, but what happens if I snap straight back? We get escalation. Better to act in good faith, assuming the best of them, because why would somebody just be horrible, right? I’m here to help. They’re paying for my time. So I check my understanding of the situation, keeping my focus on the job of improvement. In the face of professionalism, most people recognise and regret their excesses.
If they don’t, if the combative attitude persists, well…perhaps a gentle reminder is in order?
3. Constructive resistance.
We don’t have to swallow everything. The customer is not always right. And, whilst the ideal situation would be to repair the relationship, that doesn’t mean that we allow ourselves to be stamped on time and again. Nobody deserves to be treated that way. If we have ourselves been angered or frustrated, we can say so without actually fighting back. The key is to hold firm when lines are crossed, without pushing back so hard it escalates matters. A constructive resistance. Personally, I’ve found that the act of naming the injury and – key to this – bringing focus back to the project rather than the disagreement, tends to diffuse things.
4. Seeking the root cause.
The things that make people angry aren’t always clear – not even to ourselves. I don’t like to assume I know what’s going on in someone’s head, but I often have a shrewd idea based on what’s been said to set the *situation off, or what the general topic under discussion is about. A cautious query here, a request for clarity there, and we can usually get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes there’s something deep-rooted which we need to untangle; more often than not it’s something relatively small which has just acted as a trigger due to other things happening in their lives.
Using these behaviours, you can most often salvage the situation. Sometimes – sadly – you cannot.
5. Recognise the end of the road.
You are not a punching bag, and neither is your editorial partner. If one of you feels like you need to leave, you should do so. With dignity if possible, and reinforcing the the areas that you agree upon first. That may mean downing tools for a day or a week until you get into a better head-space; it may mean agreeing to part ways altogether. This is rare, but it has been known.
It can be hard to part ways, even when you’ve been struggling furiously. There’s a psychological tendency known as the sunk-cost fallacy which does not easily permit such reversals. The more money (or effort, or time) a person puts into a thing, the more important it feels to see it through—if only to justify the ‘cost’ so **far.
There’s another phrase that makes the fallacy part clearer: ‘throwing good money after bad.’
So what have we learned?
A disagreement between editorial partners should merely be the beginning of a discussion, nailing down the priorities of character, plot, language, structure, and personal preference. A discussion is not a battle, nor does it need to be. Exploring alternate ideas and differences of opinion is a good thing when done with mutual respect, with an eye to what is most important – the furtherance and the perfection of your project. It’s worth a bit of give and take.
Next week on the blog, meet The Minotaur in Finding Me (pt 2).
*Not that I get many, but I’m super-sensitive. I catch the slightest whiff of trouble, I’m in there trying to make things right. Probably a trauma response or some shizzle.
**There is an admission of personal fault implicit in a change of direction which people generally don’t like to face: I prioritised cost over quality; I didn’t realise how much work it would be; I didn’t pay attention to the red flags; I thought it would be different this time – and so on and so forth, through all walks of life. We need to accept that fault and learn from it if we want to move on and do better next time.
This is a loose follow up to an earlier blog, It’s the way that we say it.
It also has bearing on a much earlier post, It ain’t what you say.