Write for Action (Part 2)

Are all active sentences commands, e.g., “Go pick up your room,” or “Mechanics shall dispose of their batteries in the blue containers”?


Are most (if not all) of the active sentences you hear at work commands?


After my post on Tuesday, Write for Action, Mike P wrote:

I’ve been thinking about this and need some help. I see the benefit of the active sentence. You’re being transparent and providing clarity.

At the same time, active sentences can be prescriptive and sound a lot like driving people to change. “You go do this.”

I feel like driving change means that you let people know where we need to be and why. How they actually do it is not really my concern. In which case, your language would almost always be passive… “that tree over there will provide us shelter from the rain.” Rather than… “go get under that tree over there.”

Mike assumed that an encouragement toward active sentences implied an encouragement toward directive orders toward others.  Though I had meant no such implication, it isn’t hard to trace how Mike could jump to that conclusion because too often at work (I hypothesize) the only active sentences we hear are orders.

Meanwhile, in my ever-so-tilted version of reality, colored by my time driving change, I was picturing active sentences that announced what I had done or intended to do, not what I expected of others.

Here’s the type of active sentence driven conversation I was imagining:

Me: “I am going to hide under that tree for shelter from the wind.”

Other person: “Oh.”

Me: “Would you like to join me?  Do you need me to carry anything for you so it will be easier for you to join me under the tree?  Or, do you think there is a better place to shelter ourselves from the storm?”

Then the other person would answer the questions obviously directed at them to make decisions for themselves relative to the options I’d offered them or the ones that they had offered.  Action would happen quickly.

Compare that to a typical work conversation filled with passive voices. That same conversation would probably sound like:

Me: “We need shelter from the wind.”

Other person: “Oh.”

Me: “We should decide to go toward that tree.”

And then we’d just stand there, me getting more angry that the other person wasn’t moving toward the tree like I wanted us to.

And then there is the third active sentence, all orders conversation that Mike P went to in his comment.

Me: “Go stand under that tree.”

Other person: “Oh.”

Me: “Why aren’t you moving? Are you stupid? Do you need to be briefed or retrained?”

And then we are both angry and nothing happens.

Thanks Mike for showing me the gap in my thinking.  I hope I delivered the help you asked for.  You’ve helped me on this one.  I won’t miss that gap again.  Now, let’s choose action.  Let’s drive change.

2 thoughts on “Write for Action (Part 2)”

  1. I’ve been focusing on writing with a positive statement rather than negative. Rather than saying “Don’t park…” It could be written “You may park …”

    Mom wouldn’t say to us kids “Go pick up your room.” She’d call us into our bedrooms and then she’d say “Let’s get this bed made. Makes the house look so much better.” Then we’d pick up my clothes that I left laying around together. We’d have the room cleaned in no time.

    I’m still studying Mom and how she manages to get action out of people. Wish more bosses were like her. Just can’t imagine our boss coming working along side us quite like that. sigh

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