Communication Breakdown: Why we can’t get along

I’m often called into a situation where a communication breakdown has occurred. People have stopped talking to one another or refuse to talk without the presence of a manager or third party. 

The reasons why this might happen are… countless. In this video, I talk about reasons to keep talking, or to resume talking if you have stopped.

The goal of resuming a conversation is not necessarily to change the other person’s mind. That might not be possible. But what is often possible, in the face of disagreement, is mutual understanding and respectful acknowledgement of one another’s position. And that can happen only with discussion.

If you’re in a silent stalemate – with a friend, relative, neighbour, or business associate – try re-starting the conversation. Maybe start by sending a link to this video.

Conflict in a time of Coronavirus: Dealing with the doubters

Does any of this sound familiar:

  • Coronavirus is being blown out of proportion.
  • The flu kills more people every year. This social distancing is over the top.
  • If I get coronavirus, I get it – nothing much I can do about it. I’m at low-risk anyway.
  • A virus isn’t going to stop me enjoying life and seeing my friends.

Maybe there are people in your family or social circle who express these views. In this post, I offer some practical guidelines for respectful disagreement over how to respond to a public health emergency.

(If you’re one of the “doubters” yourself – keep reading. I won’t refer to what the experts say about protecting yourself and others, and I won’t scold. My guidelines can help with any strong disagreement, regardless of your position.)

If you’re trying to protect yourself and your family during a public health emergency, interacting with people who don’t share your sense of the risk, or who refuse to follow public health measures, is extremely frustrating. How to respond to your neighbour who wants to send her child over for a playdate at your place? What about your parents who refuse to cancel the weekly family dinners?­­

The single most important factor to get through this kind of conflict is to adjust your own mindset. The key is to distinguish between the things you can control and the things you cannot control. A moment’s reflection will tell you that “other people” is at the top of the list of things you cannot control. The sooner you understand this, and the sooner you are at peace with it, the better.

The next thing you have to come to grips with is that (generally speaking) a better understanding of facts does not change people’s behaviour. For example, smokers tend to be equally informed about the health risks of smoking as non-smokers. The knowledge doesn’t help them quit. Most people who are overweight are fully aware that they should eat less and exercise more. Explaining the health risks of carrying on as normal under coronavirus is probably a waste of time. The risks and possible consequences have been repeated frequently.

Understanding that you can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions, you must focus on what you can control – namely, your own thoughts and actions. Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Decide on the measures you will take to protect yourself and your family. What boundaries will you observe?
  2. Do not get into arguments with people who have different boundaries. Not only is it a waste of time and energy, it will make it harder for them to back down eventually if they change their views.
  3. If you are challenged or drawn into a discussion of your boundaries, it is fine to simply state your position and keep it at that.
  4. How much of an explanation you offer for your position will depend on your relationship to the person you’re speaking with. What you say to close family members who disagree will differ from what you say to casual acquaintances.
    • To the father of your child’s friend who suggests a playdate: “We’re keeping the kids at home, and we’ve told them no visitors.”
    • To your client who wants an in-person meeting: “As long as the public health advisory is in force, I am holding all meetings by video conference.”
    • To your parents who want the whole gang to come over for dinner: “We love you and miss you – and we don’t want anyone to get sick. As soon as the danger has passed we’ll get back to our regular dinners. Think of how we would feel if you got the virus because of one of us.”

What all of these responses have in common is that they are respectful, they do not attempt to persuade, and they do not invite further discussion.

  1. If someone “won’t take no for an answer” or tries to draw you into an argument, simply say, “It looks like we see things differently” (or some equivalent) and either change the subject or end the conversation.
  2. Whatever boundaries you set need to be clear and consistent. They are your boundaries – you don’t need anyone else’s approval and you don’t have to justify them or convince anyone else that you’re right.

(What I have said about the importance of mindset draws on my understanding of Stoic philosophy, and in particular The Handbook by Epictetus.)

About the image: Salvador Dali walking his pet anteater in Paris. Source: Open Culture

Why we can’t get along: Intent/impact assumption

It is a cliche that “poor communication” is at the root of much conflict. One particular form of poor communication that I often see is the “intent/impact” assumption.

What this means is that when a person’s actions have an impact on us, we tend to assume that they intended their actions to have that impact. If we feel disrespected, we assume that actions were intentionally disrespectful. If we are inconvenienced, we assume that the other person intended the inconvenience, or at the very least didn’t care that we were inconvenienced.

Luckily, there is a way to overcome the intent/impact assumption and I discuss it in the video.


When Mr. Spender Met Ms. Saver

All Night, Photoplay, Jan. 1919.jpgWhen Harry met Sally it seemed like their differences complemented one another.

He loved it that she was responsible and “good with money.” Even though he made a decent salary, Harry seemed to live from paycheque-to-paycheque and never knew where his money went. Sally helped him get things under control. And Sally appreciated Harry’s spontaneity and sense of fun. If she mentioned a play she wanted to see, he’d buy the best seats for the next available performance.

Now it is ten years later and they are parents of twins. Harry and Sally’s differences threaten to undermine their relationship. Each is frustrated by the other. Sally is anxious that Harry’s free-spending ways mean that they won’t have enough savings for retirement. And Harry feels judged whenever he buys something. Every time they try to talk about money it ends in accusations and bad feelings. And now the hostility is affecting other areas of their relationship.

Can a saver and a spender find happiness together? Yes – as long as they are honest about their differences, communicate openly, and share some core values.

Both Harry and Sally have legitimate points-of-view. Sally is correct that if the couple doesn’t put enough money aside, they won’t meet their goals of a comfortable retirement and helping the twins through university. And Harry also has a point when he says that their quality of life would be compromised if they focused too narrowly on these future goals. Yet if they have this conversation every time they need to make a financial discussion, frustration will set in.

Instead of frequent, frustrating conversations, Harry and Sally need a plan. If they can agree on some common financial goals and priorities, then their different attitudes to money shouldn’t undermine their relationship. They need to sit down, do the math and work out some numbers. They have to figure out how much they need to set aside for expenses and savings, and how much is left for “free” spending. After that, they can revisit the numbers on an annual basis, or whenever their financial situation changes.

If Harry and Sally have been arguing about money for the better part of ten years, this conversation might be very difficult. In order for them to reach a durable understanding, they might need help from a neutral third party. A good financial advisor should be able to help them arrive at appropriate numbers, and also help them explore their different attitudes to finances.

I spoke about this scenario with Rona Birenbaum, founder of Caring for Clients, a fee only financial planning firm in Toronto. She told me that In working with couples over the past 25 years, she rarely sees 100% financial compatibility.  She believes that one of the unheralded benefits of financial planning when done right, is in how it addresses money value differences:  “Only by facing the differences head on, constructively, lovingly and with determination, can they be overcome. It’s an essential aspect of our work.”

The practical issue – figuring out proper amounts for saving and spending – is actually the easy part. Harry and Sally also need to have a frank conversation about money and what it means to each of them. Sally needs to tell Harry that, when he makes an extravagant purchase, she worries about their future. And Harry should explain to Sally that he feels infantilized when she quizzes him on his spending habits. If each can understand the impact of their behaviour on the other, it will help both stick to the plan.

About the image: By Uncredited –, Public Domain,

How to Give Embarrassing Feedback

Adolf Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel 049.jpg

My husband came home from the gym the other day and told me that his trainer was briefly delayed. Apparently all employees had been called into a meeting to discuss a critical problem: How to tell a client that he smelled.

Giving sensitive feedback is never easy. When the message concerns intimately personal issues – bad breath, personal hygiene, unprofessional attire – it is even trickier.

As with other topics I’ve discussed, the internet offers rather indifferent advice. I found one expert who suggested an 11-step formula for imparting difficult feedback. To me, that sounds agonizing, not to mention how difficult it would be to remember each of the 11 steps. I don’t know who would find such a conversation more painful – the person imparting the information or the person on the receiving end.

You don’t need 11 steps. The key to giving difficult feedback well is to make doing so as painless as possible, both for yourself and for the other person. To do that, you have to give the message in a way that it will be readily understood. So don’t hint, don’t beat around the bush, and don’t draw out the conversation unnecessarily.

Try this instead:

Assume the person doesn’t know. “But how can he/she not know?” you will protest. “It is obvious to everyone else!” I can only reply that I’ve seen time after time that what seems readily apparent to outsiders can be opaque to ourselves. Unless the person’s embarrassing problem is the result of a medical condition, he is likely unaware of it.

Find a private place. Lower the risk of embarrassment by making sure the conversation won’t be interrupted.

Just say, “I have to tell you something” and then get right to the point. No small talk. Don’t ask the person how he thinks things are going, or if he feels he’s fitting in, etc.

Speak directly, but be kind. Again, don’t hint or make the person guess at what you mean. At the same time, don’t exaggerate or over-state things. Saying something like, “You have a noticeable body odor” is enough.

Be matter-of-fact and relaxed. If you are nervous or feel insecure, the person you’re speaking with will pick up on it and it may make him or her feel worse. Also, by being tense or dramatic, you give the issue excessive importance. Remember, the person you’re speaking with has personal hygiene issues, not a fatal disease.

Take responsibility. Don’t say that the issue is something that “came to your attention” or that you’ve “received complaints.” Don’t make the person feel worse by implying that he or she has been the subject of gossip.

If the person gets angry or defensive, stay calm yourself. As when responding to any angry person, let him or her speak as much as needed. Hear them out, then repeat back what they said. Resist the impulse to solve the problem or offer advice unless they ask you what to do. If you’re not sure what else to say, try: “I told you because if it was me, I would want to know.”

What to do next will depend very much on your relationship with the other person. Are you their boss, a colleague or a friend? If they ask for your help, offer practical advice suited to the issue in question. (More frequent changes of clothing? Stronger deodorant? A trip to the dentist?)

Finally, check your intentions. What is your motivation for confronting this person? Unless you sincerely want to help him or her, keep quiet.

About the image: By Adolph Menzel – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Asking for an Apology (Part 2)

Title: Could you be a little more specific?One of the most popular posts on this blog is one I wrote more than two years ago, about asking for an apology.  At least once a day, someone somewhere searches for the phrase “asking for an apology” or “how to ask for an apology” and finds my post.

Unfortunately, some who find the post will be disappointed because I do not actually explain how to ask for an apology.  So I decided to remedy that today.

First, a disclaimer:  I do not believe that those people searching for “how to ask for an apology” are searching for the right thing.  Asking for an apology is actually pretty easy.  “You owe me an apology” will do it.  The harder part – the part that people really need help with – is in telling someone else why they owe you an apology.  And that is what I want to help with.

  1.  Raise your concern about a specific act or specific pattern of behaviour.  “You were an hour late meeting me” or “The last three times we’ve arranged to meet, you’ve been very late.”  Do not say something like:  “You are always late” or “Why can’t you get it together and be on time?”  Also resist attacking the person’s character:  “You don’t care about anyone but yourself!”
  2. Tell the person how their actions effect you:  “When you are late to meet me, I feel like you don’t care about my time” or “I feel frustrated if I don’t know when you will arrive and I have to wait.”
  3. Then pause.  Give the other person a chance to say something.  Maybe he or she will take the opportunity to apologize.  Maybe not.  Unfortunately, you risk the other person saying something like, “Gee, you’re so uptight.  What’s the big deal about being a few minutes late?”
  4. If that happens – if the person you’re addressing attacks you or mounts a vigorous defense instead of apologizing – what you should do next depends very much on your relationship.  Is this someone with whom you can have a calm discussion?  Is this someone who is incapable of a genuine apology?  Is this someone you simply must get along with, such as a family member?  Unfortunately, there is no pat formula for what you should do.  But see the next step.
  5. Apology received or not, you can say something like this:  “In the future, I would like you to…try harder to be on time or … call me if you’ll be late or …whatever you think would improve the situation for you.

Asking for an apology – and especially telling someone why you feel you deserve an apology – is risky.  Yet if you don’t do it, the person who has upset you may never understand the effect that their words or actions have had, and your relationship may never be the same.  You have to decide for yourself if taking the risk and asking for an apology is the right thing to do.

Apologies 201 (Advanced Course)

I'm SorryI wrote about apologies last January, and it seems like a good time to revisit the subject.  You can find a lot of information on the internet about how (and how not) to apologize.  You can find lists devoted to the worst ever apologies by public figures.  Admittedly, little of what I say below is original.  Still, I hope it will be useful.

1.  “I’m sorry that I…” vs. “I’m sorry that you …”

One of the key components of an effective apology is that the speaker takes responsibility for his or her actions.  If a speaker fails to take responsibility those on the receiving end of the apology are likely to be dissatisfied.  You can make sure that you are taking responsibility by formulating your apology with the words, “I’m sorry that I …”

An apology that starts with the words “I’m sorry that you …” (were offended, were upset, were inconvenienced, etc.) will do nothing to repair a broken relationship.  It might even make the other person feel insulted and resentful towards you.

This form of apology – called the “non-apology apology” is unfortunately so common that it has its own wikipedia entry.

2.  “I’m sorry if I …”

Avoid this phrasing.  At worst, including the word “if” sounds like hedging and the attempt to evade responsibility.  At best, it makes you sound emotionally out-of-tune with the apology recipient.


I’m sorry if I offended you.  [I’m not sure if I did or not.]

I’m sorry I offended you.  [Pause]  It certainly wasn’t my intention.

In the first, the speaker gives the impression that he or she isn’t sure that others have been offended.  There is room for doubt.  If you are not sure whether someone is offended or not, there is no harm is asking.  But apologise right away rather than waiting for an answer.

Did I offend you?  If so, I’m sorry.

If you wait for an answer, you put the other person in the socially awkward position of having to say, “Yes, you offended me.”  It isn’t easy for most of us to say this.  It sounds confrontational.  Rather than put someone in an uncomfortable position of having to tell you that you offended them, apologize if you even suspect that you might have done so.

3.  I’m sorry but

I’m sorry but I’ve been having a bad week …  I’m sorry but I’m under a lot of pressure at work … I’m sorry but you should have known better than to …

Where to start?  When you say “I’m sorry but…” the part that comes after “but” negates the apology.  People won’t hear “I’m sorry” because your self-justification will be ringing in their ears.

There may be a time to explain yourself and to offer testimony about extenuating circumstances.  The time to do this is not when you are offering an apology.  The apology is supposed to meet the needs of the other person.  In a proper and effective apology, one takes responsibility, offers contrition, and acknowledges the other person’s feelings.  Self-justification and explanation (if appropriate) can come later.


I’m sorry … but I had a really bad day.

I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have acted in the way that I did.  [Pause]  And I want you to know that I had a really bad day at work, although that is no excuse.

Which would you rather hear?

Finally, if you don’t feel sorry about something, don’t apologise.  Most people are pretty good at detecting insincerity.   A false or half-hearted apology is arguably more destructive of relationships than the lack of an apology.

Inflation Alert: The Language of Violent Conflict

love is a battlefieldAround the time when Justin Trudeau announced his candidacy for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, I remember seeing an article that claimed that he had a good chance because he had “spent time in the trenches” during the previous federal election campaign.

Justin Trudeau in the trenches?  Had he been embedded with Canadian forces in Afghanistan?  How come I had not heard about it?  I continued reading.  Of course, Justin Trudeau has spent no more “time in the trenches” than I have.  The writer was referring to his door-to-door campaigning in Montreal.  Now, I realize that Montreal can get pretty cold, and that people aren’t always friendly to unsolicited visitors.  But this hardly amounts to “time in the trenches.”

Military metaphors and the language of violent conflict are a ready source of clichés for journalists and bloggers.  We have the “war on the car,”  the “war on Christmas,” “patent wars” between Apple and Samsung, and even an alleged “war against boys” in the education system.  It is commonplace to describe any dispute as a “battleground.” We often hear of the necessity to “open a new front” in some conflict.  (This usually amounts to something like filing a motion in court.)  Last week Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the National Hockey League, made the ridiculous remark that the NHL’s demand to limit player contract lengths to five years would be “the hill we will die on.”  Please.  I understand that professional hockey is important to many people in this country, and if I were one of those people, I would certainly be very frustrated right now.  But holding fast to your position in a negotiation is not remotely like a heroic martyrdom in battle, no matter how much money or whatever “principles” are at stake.

The appeal of exaggerated language is not hard to fathom. Leaders speak of “rallying the troops” and “fighting the good fight” because doing so is motivational.  People need to feel that their actions matter, the consequences are significant, and that the conflict they’re engaged in is important.  Journalists present rather banal disputes and legal contests as “battles” in an effort to gain and hold our attention.  But not every conflict is worthy of a “fight to the death.”  The stakes are not always high. Even in a zero-sum type of conflict where compromise is impossible and only one side can prevail, the consequences of both winning and losing can be less momentous than the participants believe. The passage of time has a way of making both wins and loses less important than they seem at present.

The overuse of military metaphors is tiresome, but that isn’t the most important reason to resist it.  This form of language inflation has consequences.  If a conflict is a “battle” or a “war,” then it follows that one’s opponents are “the enemy” (and perhaps “evil” as well.)  If one side is the “victor” (who presumably is entitled to the spoils), then the “vanquished” side is shamed or humiliated.  If the other party in a dispute is not just someone you happen to disagree with, or someone whose interests are opposed to yours, but an “enemy,” then that makes compromise much more challenging.  It makes hearing their position more difficult, and opportunities for joint problem solving and mutual gain are likely to be overlooked.

Considering every disagreement, whether it is a civic dispute, a political difference, or a legal contest, as a “war” or “battle” is probably bad for your mental health, and maybe even detrimental to the public good.  Violent conflicts with life-and-death consequences are taking place now in Afghanistan, Syria, and Congo, to mention only a few.  Let’s not trivialize the experiences of people there by exaggerating the importance and severity of our own conflicts.

How to Respond to Criticism

MaidHow to respond to the co-worker who criticizes your presentation, to your spouse who disapproves of the way you load the dishwasher, or to the random stranger who passes judgement on your parallel parking?

Everyone has been on the receiving end of criticism.  If you’re lucky, the criticism was relevant, and delivered with sensitivity and tact.  Unfortunately this is often not the case. Criticism can be delivered so badly that any value it may have for the recipient is all but impossible to recover.  (See my previous post for some ideas about how to give constructive criticism.)  Yet attending to criticism, no matter how tactless or ill-conceived, is important.  We get better by attending to critical feedback.  One of the biggest differences between novices and experts in a given domain is that while novices pay more attention to positive feedback, experts hone their skills by attending more to negative feedback.*

Much of what I’ve seen written about responding to criticism is not very good.  Recipients of advice are told not to “take it personally.”  But whether or not it is useful to take criticism “personally” depends very much on what kind of criticism we’re talking about.  Certainly, a scientist should not take it “personally” if her methodology is criticized.  And a graphic designer should not take it “personally” if a client rejects one of his designs.  Yet some legitimate criticism is of a personal nature, and one can only learn from it if it is taken “personally.”  A customer service rep who is criticized for having an abrasive manner does in fact need to take the criticism “personally” if he or she wishes to change and be more effective in the job.

The most important thing about responding to any  criticism is to put yourself in the correct mindset so that you can learn from criticism. Think carefully about critical feedback.  Try to separate those aspects of the criticism that may be useful from those that are not. This can be difficult to do.  It might help to discuss the criticism with a trusted friend or mentor – someone who respects you enough to tell you the truth, even if the truth is hard to hear.

Another piece of advice I’ve seen regarding criticism is to “ignore the haters” – with the implication that anyone who offers criticism is a “hater.”  A more helpful suggestion is to consider the source of the criticism. Is it your boss delivering the criticism, a co-worker, your spouse, a stranger?  How seriously to take the criticism and how to respond will depend on the answer to this question.  Is the person criticizing you angry or upset?  This might mean that the criticism is unfair or inappropriate.  But it is impossible to be sure:  True words are sometimes be spoken in anger.  Again, discuss the criticism with someone you trust, or try to have a conversation with your critic when he or she is more calm.

When responding to criticism, even unfair or misplaced criticism, try not to be defensive.  Do not attempt to answer your critic on the spot.  It is much more important to make sure you understand what is being said.  Repeat back your critic’s words.  This will show that you have been listening, and it will also give you time to frame a response.  Ask questions to make sure that you have in fact understood.  As difficult as it is to hear criticism, walking away confused or unsure about what you may have been doing wrong is worse and more damaging in the long run.

Sadly, some of the people who criticize you (while perhaps not “haters”) will have questionable motives, and some may be acting from confused emotions.  But if someone genuinely wants to help you, or is in a role where giving critical feedback is appropriate, then listen, learn what you can, and be grateful.  It isn’t easy for most people to offer negative feedback, and when they do so out of a desire to help you, recognize that they have tried to do you a favour.

* Stacey R. Finkelstein and Ayelet Fishbach, “Tell Me What I Did Wrong:  Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback,” Journal of Consumer Research.  June 2012.

How to Give Constructive Criticism

everyones a criticAt the grocery store the other day I saw a great example of how not to criticize someone.  I have no idea what started it, but when I walked by the “Customer Service” desk an angry woman was berating the employee there:  “You don’t have the right personality to work in customer service!” she said.  The employee shrugged and mumbled something to the effect that she was trying her best.  There wasn’t much she could say.  How can you effectively respond to a stranger who criticizes your personality?

The incident made me think about the correct (and incorrect) ways to offer constructive criticism.  What was wrong with the customer’s actions?  She offered criticism when she was angry, in public, about someone’s “personality” (rather than say, about some specific actions), seemingly without any consideration for feelings or the impact that her words might have.

There are better ways to criticize, and a lot has been written on this topic.  I’ll keep this to a few suggestions.

Reflect on why you want to offer criticism.  There are many reasons to offer constructive criticism.  It might be part of your job description to offer critical feedback to others.  You might have a genuine impulse to help a friend who could benefit from the advice.  But the desire to criticize can also have a dark side, and taking a few moments to examine your own motives is a good idea.  Are you angry or upset with the person you are thinking of addressing?  Are your comments intended to be wounding?  Does criticizing others make you feel better about yourself?

Pick the right time and place.  Find a time when both you and the other person are calm and undistracted.  Don’t offer criticism (however well-meaning) to someone who is angry or upset.  Don’t criticize someone in front of others – wait until you can be alone.  (This holds true when criticizing children as well.)

Be transparent about your intentions.  What is the purpose of your criticism?  Is it part of a routine performance review?  Is it a response to a request for feedback?  Do you want to help the other person achieve some goal?  Are you trying to get him or her to change some specific behaviour?  Share the reasons for your criticism with its recipient.  Your remarks should not come “out of the blue.”  Constructive criticism is easier to take if it is put in a larger context.

Be nice.  Focus completely on the other person.  Although some people have had more practice than others at receiving critical feedback, I don’t think that anyone ever looks forward to it.  Be as tactful as you can.  Focus on the other person and stay in the moment.  Attending fully to others is a way of showing respect, and this is especially crucial if your message is likely to be unwelcome.

Criticize actions and behaviour – not character or personality.  Compare:  “You are often late for meetings,” and “You are so selfish that you don’t care if others have to wait for you.”  The first is a criticism of specific behaviour; the second is an attack on character.  Which do you think will make the other person defensive and possibly hostile?  (And remember – it isn’t always possible to read intentions from actions.  I have known several chronically-late people who were disorganized and overwhelmed rather than inconsiderate.)

Keep it positive.  When you give specific advice, make your suggestion positive.  If possible, focus on the actions that the person should do, rather than what he or she should refrain from doing.  For example, say you have single male friend who goes on a lot of first dates …. but not many second dates.  He asks for your advice, and you’re pretty sure that his tendency to speak at great length when given the opportunity is part of the problem.  Rather than telling him to talk less, advise him to listen more.  It is easier to initiate a new habit than it is to monitor and curtail an old one.

Start and end with a compliment.  (Sometimes called, “Hug them in and hug them out.”)  This is especially important if you are giving criticism as part of an official role, say as a manager, coach or teacher.  Find something nice to say about the person you are about to criticize.  Begin by complimenting him or her.  (Again, try to make the compliment about specific actions or behaviour; not about general characteristics.)  Then deliver the criticism as tactfully as you can.  Finally, repeat the compliment (or offer a different one) before ending the encounter.  Make sure that your compliments are sincere.  The other person will recognize it if they are not.

Next post:  How to respond to criticism.