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  • Writer's pictureDr. Neal Nybo

Micro-Action 5: Be clear and kind on the phone

Welcome to another excerpt from my workbook, Workplace Positivity.

I (Nicole) remember being awfully grateful I had thought out potential responses when I

found myself as the third wheel in a triangle of conflict. With the phone in one

hand, I listened for a moment to what the voice was saying to me. “Nicole, I know

you still do business with Cheryl so I thought you should know…”

The person on the other end of the line used to be business partners with Cheryl.

The two of them had a falling out and now they were both vying for my attention

and the work I could offer them.

“Hold on… let me interrupt you for just one second,” I began. “I understand you

have my best interest at heart, and I appreciate that. But I’m going to offer you the

same courtesy I will offer Cheryl and I’m not going to talk about her when she’s not

around. I know that might sound harsh, but I promise you I will also not talk about

you when you’re not around.”

There was some hemming and stuttering as the woman tried to respond to what

I had just said. Finally, she was left with three words, “Okay. I understand.”

People are going to be in conflict with each other. It’s going to happen and

sometimes it’s going to involve us. Just because they are in conflict does not mean we

have to be in conflict.

Creating an exit plan ahead of time helps us to gracefully navigate those minefields.

One of the places conflicts can often arise is on the phone. We might be on a

business call or just chatting in a more casual manner when the bomb drops. The

conversation starts to feel a little negative, a little gossipy, and a lot like something

you’re trying to avoid.

So let’s go ahead and learn how to avoid it. On the phone, your exit plan might look like the story I just shared. Someone begins gossiping or complaining and you’re on the receiving end. It takes some guts, but it’s helpful to stop the conversation before it really begins. If you wait too long, the person will most certainly say something that will later

cause them embarrassment. Spare them and yourself those feelings by being clear

and kind from the start.

You might try saying, “I care too much about the well-being of both of you to

give an opinion on this situation.” Or “I’m working on reducing my daily negative

word count. I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t talk about other people when they

aren’t around.” Or “Forgive me for bowing out of this conversation, but I’m still

formulating my own opinions of this person so I really want to make sure my view

isn’t skewed by anyone else’s experiences.”

However, you choose to phrase it, make sure you take the time now to figure

out what you’re going to say. Creating an exit plan on the spot often leads to hurt

feelings and miscommunication. We want to make sure we are leaving the conversation without badgering anyone else or making them feel judged. This is about us

and our mindset, not theirs.


Sometimes the best exit strategy is to stay engaged with phrases like, “I can go either

way,” and, “What would that look like?” These have helped me stay in the conversation

while exiting a potentially conflictual or misunderstood moment. Especially on the phone,

it is tempting to offer a definitive answer or an opinion on what should be done next.

In those moments, our musings and off the cuff responses can be perceived as written in

stone or interpreted as firm instructions. I’ve more than once asked people why they did

something to have them tell me, “Because you told me to.” What I meant as a personal

opinion in response to an informal question was acted on as if it were a direct command.

Sometimes a person would leave a conversation with me and tell others, “Neal said we

should...,” when all I thought I had done was offer a personal impression.

So many times I would have helped myself and others by saying, “I can go either way,”

or, “What would that look like?” Have a phrase or two in mind and ready. Practice them

so when you need them, they are there, to give you the exit you planned for ahead of time,

just in case you need it.

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