How to Deal With Difficult Communication Issues on the Job

First Step: Avoid them. If that’s not possible, you’ll have to deal with them.

Think back to the most recent time you had a difficult conversation with a customer, or with a coworker. (1) How did you handle it? (2) What happened as a result? (3) What was the real issue? (4) In retrospect, and given the results you got, what, if anything, would you have done differently – or will do differently, next time?

Here’s a quick formula you might use to smooth out your next difficult conversation in advance. As you see this difficult, or unpleasant conversation developing, and before you become enmeshed too far, ask yourself: (1.) What is my purpose in having this conversation? And then,

  1. What do I want to achieve here?
  1. If you have no answer for either of these questions, maybe it’s time to take your polite leave.
  1. It has been said that you cannot be emotional and logical at the same time. So, by having this analytical dialogue with yourself, you can remove the emotion, and concentrate on the logical. The next question, a key question, is to determine what the real issue is in this difficult conversation. Yours, and his, her, or theirs.
  1. Choose the outcome you need, and as the conversation progresses, be certain that everything you say contributes to that outcome.
  1. If, rather than your being in the middle, a situation already exists for you to fix, you have two options: (1) do nothing, and wait to see what happens, and (2) do something – but what?

In any case, remain professional, pleasant, objective, and calm. Stay focused on what you want to achieve. Don’t lose focus and allow yourself to sink in a swamp of unrelated and useless details.

Some communication issues you can control.  These are usually the outgoing ones. For a phone call, perhaps to resolve a difficult or controversial issue, or maybe just to avoid making an issue any more difficult than it already is, you may want to try this:

  1. Jot down a few notes for yourself before picking up the phone – just a few words on each point you want to cover to remind yourself of the points you want to include. These are “talking points,” not a script. (Scripts sound phony.)
  1. You may find it helpful to start your conversation with an objective who-what-when-where-why-how first paragraph, identifying yourself, and the situation. Be as objective as you can. “Just the facts, ma’am!”
  1. Before making that phone call, anticipate the other person’s comments, complaints, or questions. Practice the answers before picking up the phone (good idea to do this for every contact, and every contact medium).
  1. For that in-person meeting, you’ll want to prepare an agenda to hand out at the meeting, leaving space between agenda items to take notes. For the phone call your contact is expecting, you may or may not want to prepare an agenda and email it in advance. This is a strategy consideration.

Incoming messages are harder to control. You cannot always anticipate the unexpected! So what do you do when you receive an unexpected, unpleasant, or even angry email, phone call, or visit?

  1. Sound, or seem glad to hear from, or see, the other person. Be pleasant, be professional.
  1. Clear your mind and focus on this discussion, especially on what he or she is saying, so you can:
  1. Re-state what he or she has said, in other words, to make sure you have a clear understanding of what each of you agrees to.
  1. If you can, set up a conversational “agenda.”
  1. Set up reasonable expectations for this conversation.
  1. Take good notes, making sure you have proper spellings – especially of names – and complete contact information.

In many cases, you will be able to resolve the issue at this point if you can remain focused, professional, pleasant, objective, and calm. When this is the case: Keeping a copy, and using an appropriate tone, confirm, or re-state what you have agreed to, in writing – by email, paper mail, or note card, as appropriate for the tone you want to establish or reinforce with this person.


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email to learn more.

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