Whenever we face a communication dilemma, whether we must tell our aging parents that they can no longer live independently or tell our best friend that her clothes do not suit her, we agonize over what to do. How do we tell people things they do not wish to hear?

These kind of communication dilemmas slip up on us all the time. We go our merry way, and as if they were waiting in the bushes to ambush us, there they are. We are caught off guard. Whenever I’m asked to speak about my book, Managing Sticky Situations at Work (http://www.managingstickysituationsatwork.com), I’m asked, “What is the most common situation you find?” After some thought, I realized that it’s these kind of communication dilemmas. We all commonly find ourselves in a position where we have to tell someone something they don’t want to hear.

At work, you may have to tell an employee that his job has been eliminated. Or, you might have to explain to a board of directors that profits fell this year. The list is endless. How we respond to these communication dilemmas put us either in the category of confident communicator who can say it just right or in the category of communication imbeciles who fail at these tests. If you think yourself inept at these tough communication tests, you are not alone.

The Say It Just Right Model gives us some guidance. We need to pay attention to the Three C’s: Change is within you, Show Curiosity and Compassion. We need to make sure we think through the communication before it happens—in other words, don’t react. The Decision Points help us there. In addition, let me share a few more basic tips:

• Think before you speak. This axiom may seem obvious. But how often do you find yourself blurting something out and then wishing you had not done so. Often we prefer not to think about these communication dilemmas. In fact, we put them out of our minds because they distress us. For that reason when the time comes to fire someone or to report bad financial news to your boss, you wing it and hope for the best.

• Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. We think we understand how other people are thinking and feeling, but that is one thing we can never fully understand. We have to really work at trying to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Often in workshops when people share their frustrations with their bosses or their co-workers, I ask them, “What do you think is going on with that person?” They shrug off that question with responses like, “They are just crazy.” Or “They don’t care about anyone but themselves.” In reality, we have not really given that question much thought. If you really don’t know what is going on with the other person, ask him. What a novel thought? If you’ve not broken down all trust with that person, he will tell you. And above all, do not assume that he is feeling something unless he tells you either verbally or nonverbally.


Do not say: “I’m sure you’re feeling lost and alone, knowing you have to search for another job.”

Do say: “I know this news comes as a blow to you. I sense your need to take it all in. But, before you leave, tell me what I can do to help you.”

• Do not jump in with all your pre-fabricated solutions too soon. People need to take in what you’ve just dished out. Give them a chance to absorb what you’ve said. Ask them what they want to do.


If you are saying to your elderly parents that they can no longer live independently, don’t say: “I’ve looked into the assisted living facility nearby. Let’s go tour it.”

Instead say: “What options would you like to explore?”

• Be prepared to offer support but do not waiver on your initial request. In other words, if you are telling someone something they don’t want to hear, do not back peddle.


If you are telling your best friend that her clothes do not suit, do not say, “I didn’t really mean you should change your wardrobe, I just wanted you to know that you could look really good in more professional clothes. But I love what you wear.”

Instead say: “When we all reach a certain age, we must re-evaluate our clothes choices. If you’d wear turtlenecks instead of low-cut blouses, you’d look younger and it would better fit your image. How might I help you select something for that important interview?”

Being able to say it just right, when you must tell people something they don’t want to hear, takes practice and preparation. Communication is one of the hardest things we do and yet we give it very little thought. It’s time to think about what you say and strive to say it in the best way.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Joan Curtis is a nationally known communications coach, certified by the International Coaches Federation. She has over 20 years experience as a trainer and educator. She has taught communication skills and presentation skills to leadership groups throughout the country
She is the author of two books: Managing Sticky Situations at Work: Communication Secrets for Success in the Workplace, which introduces the Say It Just Right Model of communication, and Strategic Interviewing: Skills and Tactics for Savvy Executives, which introduces the proprietary POINT process. She is under contract for her third book, The New Handshake: Sales Meets Social Media.
Her web sites include: http://www.TotalCommunicationscoach.com and http://www.ManagingStickySituationsatWork.com