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The Menace of Negative Communication at the Office

written by: Winston Smith•edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 6/30/2011

Increased workload and the state of the economy often means that many people are very stressed and under pressure. As a result, negative communication at the workplace is becoming common. Learn how to avoid this personally and to respond to others when they lash out.

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    Understanding Negative Communication

    Whether you work at a law firm or a retail shop, negative communication in the workplace is a challenge. It is important to understand the various causes that prompt this kind of harmful behavior. In some cases, negativity will result when staff are under pressure to meet deadlines or when new management makes increased demands. While not excusable, these pressures do make a certain degree of sense. If people become upset in these situations, understand that their attitude likely has more to do with the pressure than anything else. Unfortunately, that is not the only reason for negative communication. Workplaces often have some people with weak social skills who simply have trouble containing their temper and lash out at others with insults and other forms of abuse. The third major cause for dysfunctional communication is the tone set by management. If managers are known for this kind of hostile behavior, many people will presume that such behavior is tolerated in the workplace.

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    It Starts With You: Self Control and Communication

    Drill sergeant screams (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons) Before looking at the behavior of other people, it is best to start with yourself. Negative communication can come in many different shapes and sizes - an angry tone, an angry email or simply failing to acknowledge someone properly in a meeting. Think over the last month or two and consider the last time you had this kind of difficulty. Specifically, who was your negativity directed at? How did the other person react? Apart from the disrespectful nature of such communication, this kind of behavior also makes it more difficult for you to work with others.

    Going forward, there are several techniques you can use to improve your workplace communication. First, think through how you are going to converse with the other person; develop a communication plan. If you are delivering bad news, deliver this in person if possible - delivering such news by email is likely to lead to misunderstandings. Second, put yourself in the shoes of the other party - how would they react to your message? This leads to a related principle - timing. Bad timing can easily turn a reasonable message into a negative communication. For example, schedule a meeting with the other person to discuss an issue rather than simply walking up to their desk. After setting the stage for the conversation, you need to be able to respond to the other person. If you see the other party starting to become upset, then address those emotions immediately.

    Managers face additional challenges when it comes to communication in the workplace. If you are providing feedback to an employee as a manager, understand the power dynamics at play in this type of conversation. Employees need to understand where they stand in terms of performance and where they can improve. Negative communication tends to focus on the person's character rather than specific actions they can take to improve. If you have a scheduled a meeting with one of your staff, prepare some notes to help you focus on the person. If you need more ideas on how to improve your communication, think through one or two case where you interacted successfully with a superior and how that person communicated.

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    Communicating With Coworkers and Customers

    Negative interaction is not always within your control at the office. In light of that reality, you need some strategies to respond to the negativity of others. One of the most common places to encounter apparently negative communication is in an email. After all, the brevity of these notes leaves much to be desired - despite the importance of email etiquette many people continue to find it difficult to follow the rules. When you receive a note and it makes you feel angry, delay responding immediately. Once you have calmed yourself, consider phoning the person to follow up. In many cases, the negative tone of the message is little more than an oversight. As a side benefit, you often get additional context and background to the email that helps you understand the other person's email better.

    Interactions with clients and customers raises different issues. If you are a working with an upset or disappointed client, your first goal should be to understand their views, not to defend yourself. Avoid well worn phrases such as "your business is important to us." Instead, ask questions that show you understand the client's concern and that you are working to improve. In many cases, demonstrating your sympathy with a client's frustration will ease the tension of the sitaution considerably. Even if you disagree with the client's comments, listen to them respectfully. Active listening is a great way to respond to a highly charged conversation. The workplace is stressful enough - do what you need to calm the situation.

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    Jamie Walters and Sarah Fenson, A Crash Course in Communication, Inc. Magazine, August 1 2000,

    Arnold Anderson, Effects of Negative Communication in the Workplace, Chron Small Business,

    Image Credit:

    Drill sergeant screams, US Marine Corps, Public Domain, wikimedia commons

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