Count to Ten: Unpleasant Communication on the Job

Until, or unless completely emotionless robots run our world, unpleasant communication issues will continue to exist on the job. And so, as one popular phrase puts it, we will just have to deal with it.


What do you do when you receive an unpleasant, or even a downright angry email, phone call, or visit? How do you deal with it?

Many will tell you that you cannot be logical and emotional at the same time. Some will say, “Count to 10.” That old dictum can be very useful for collecting your thoughts. And in collecting your thoughts, you can move easily from emotion to logic.

Start by asking yourself what you want to accomplish – when all is said and done, what do you want to have happen. Then decide whether your better course would be to take action, or to wait and do nothing, to get those results.

When you decide to act, what is appropriate? What will you do? Send an email, make a phone call, discuss the issue one-on-one? And, dropping the emotion here, what will you say? Make a list. Jot down a word or two for each logical item you will mention. For each, determine whether this information should be passed along – at all? And especially, will it build toward your desired resolution for this issue?

Now that you have decided what you need to achieve, and what you are going to say, look for the real issue – the other person’s and yours. Does what you plan to say, and by what means, still fit?

If you decide to write, try this organizational structure:

  1. In the first paragraph, describe the situation objectively with “just the facts, ma’am.” Perhaps something like, “On October 22, you inquired about a credit for the October 15 shipment from our warehouse of a dozen series 234 widgets that arrived in damaged condition at your Chicago warehouse.”
  1. Paragraph two is where you reassure the reader that someone was in charge, someone looked into the matter, and that someone cares. You describe the steps taken, and by whom. Then what he, or she, or they, found out as a result. This is a good place for a bullet-point list of each finding.
  1. By paragraph three, you have led your reader through the information, the “reasons why” that back up your answer, and he or she has pretty well anticipated what your position, or your answer, will be. So here’s where it goes.
  1. Next, provide options, if there are any. These options may be a separate paragraph four, or may be included in paragraph three.
  1. Finally, end with a closing comment to build, or reinforce the relationship with that reader, if appropriate, or just plain quit.

If you decide to initiate a phone call or schedule a meeting, try this:

  1. Much like the above, prepare an objective who-what-when-where-why-how opening that only identifies the situation objectively. During the conversation, remain pleasant. Listen. Don’t argue.
  1. Before making the call, list a few words to note each of the points you want to cover, to make sure you don’t forget anything. This is not a script, but a reminder list. Leave a little space after each point to make notes.

If you are meeting in person, it may help each of you remain objective, and to work toward a solution, if you have prepared a printed agenda to work from.

  1. Also before making the call, anticipate the other person’s comments, complaints, or questions. Practice the answers.
  1. Throughout, remain professional, pleasant, objective, calm. Stay focused on what you want to achieve.

For an unexpected call or visit,

  1. Sound, or seem glad to see, or hear from 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 that the other person agrees to.
  1. If you can, set up a conversational “agenda.”
  1. Set up reasonable expectations for this conversation.

These three strategies have served well in a wide variety of situations. May you find them useful as well.


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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