I am excited to speak here on ways we can help clients move through difficulties, without distress for you or the client. How? Put plainly, people react to the way we speak to them. Being skillful in how you speak to people brings you real confidence to turn around a difficult situation and get the results you need. I’ll show you what I mean.

Take a quiet moment and consider the following statement: Imagine being so skilled in your personal communications that you can navigate any conversation: the easy, the delicate, and the difficult. What would that mean to your work and to your life?

Many counsellors and coaches, especially you career counsellors, work with people whose search is often painful for them. Maybe they’ve been flung into job loss or, maybe they’ve just had enough and want a change. Their livelihood is threatened and they don’t know what’s ahead. So you begin in earnest and the roadblocks appear. Their difficulty becomes your difficulty and of course you want this client to be successful. But we are after all, only human.

As examples, we’ll cover Phrases to Avoid and Organizing Technology, but first we’ll look at a couple of invented clients through the following four strategies and techniques:

Choice of words and tone – also known as, it’s not what you say but how you say it.
For example, if you say to someone What’s the matter with you? you’ll likely get a defensive response like Nothing’s the matter with me. Why will you get that answer? Because the question is accusatory. Instead, ask Is something wrong?, or Is everything okay? You’ll likely get an answer you can work with. Notice also how the choice of words affects your tone.

How to critique – if it’s a project, or a performance review, or a struggling professional relationship, always start with the big picture, not the details, and include all the positive things there are. Get your listener on-side. Talk about the work, not what I want or what you did. Use phrases like: this might really benefit from having a … Or, another example: I can see you’ve worked hard on this and there are some really good results. I do have a few questions and suggestions so let’s tuck in and see what we find.

Self-management – is defined as the use of self-awareness to produce a desired change in behaviour. Being self-aware takes some effort and anger is the biggest sinkhole for us all. Ask yourself, for example: am I angry about this? Or, am I bringing anger into this situation from an unrelated incident. Either way, there are many things you can do.

Always take a moment to consider, to be self-aware. Better to take an extra 30 seconds or more to settle your own hash, than have an unproductive encounter. This is the essence of this thinking right here. If you’re caught off guard, just excuse yourself for a moment to calm down and think about how you want to handle the difficulty. Aim for a positive outcome.

Diffusing difficulties happens by skillfully assessing the situation and setting a professional and respectful tone. For example, you return to the meeting now a bit more calm, and suggest that feelings were running a bit high so let’s focus on what we have to do here. Avoid language like You said that … Again, it’s accusatory. You might add: we can talk about any problems around this afterward. This is a sound tactic because what started out to be problems often get solved in your conversation.

Here is the first invented client.

Here comes Jennifer. She’s 39 and was down-sized from her middle management job. She’s very unhappy, hostile and sarcastic. She hands you her resume which is out of date, in an old format, and not very helpful to her cause.

You might say to yourself, oh great, not another start from zero resume – which might come out as – Well, we can’t use this as it is, so plenty of work to do here. Or even just – Oh, okay. The words and tone here won’t get you very far. It will discourage Jennifer too.

Self-management steps in here by being careful not to pick up on her hostility and sarcasm. Here’s the chance to set the tone for your work together and to build trust. Take a beat and remember that you are the expert here and what you say matters a lot.

Instead, critique the resume with something like: you’ve done a lot of interesting and impressive things. I know you were with the company for a long time so let’s refresh this resume and really make it work for you.

See the difference? You have cleared the path to the work without creating defensiveness. How?
By starting with some self-management in not responding to Jennifer’s sarcasm, and by setting your conversational tone through the words you use,
Also by using technique to critique the resume with something positive and forward looking,
And in the process you’ve managed to diffuse the difficulty.

Skillful stuff this and a lot like dance steps, or tennis volleys.

Here’s the second invented client

Meet Dave. He’s 32 and has been fired from his job. He doesn’t really understand what the problem was, and he oozes ambition. You’ve been working with Dave for a couple of weeks and he shows up for appointments. But when he does he’s slouchy in his chair and seems disinterested. Plus he doesn’t do the work. Maybe it’s time to have the chat with Dave.

You greet him in your usual friendly way and he is sullen. You might now be frustrated and annoyed by being treated unprofessionally and want to say: Listen Dave, I wonder what we’re doing here because we’re not making much progress. I can’t force you to do the work.

Though all these things are true they are too confrontational. In your professionalism, you want Dave to be successful.

Try instead asking how his week went. He might grunt at you – okay I guess.
How did you do with the homework we talked about? Dave says he didn’t do it.
Ask – How can I help you with this? Our job here is to get you back in the saddle with all your great skills, and you do have great skills. There does seem to be a lot of resistance to our work and I’m a bit confused by that.

Frustrated, Dave starts shouting that this is no use and what do you know about my work anyway etc. Before he gets too far into it, quietly say “You’re shouting at me”.

Personal sidebar, I’ve been shouted at many times and each time I’ve used this, the shouter has stopped immediately and apologized. With Dave here, it’s diffused his misplaced anger, and you can now get to the business of sorting out what Dave plans to do with the opportunity in front of him.

Great self-management here, compassionate words and tone, and you have critiqued Dave’s time with you. That is – the work isn’t moving forward, that he has great skills and you’ve been straight about his resistance.

This might be the time to ask Dave to talk about being fired and how he’s dealing with it. Given Dave’s outburst, chances are he’s unresolved about it and that’s what’s in the way. He might not have spoken to anyone about it.

Remind him that he can say anything to you, in confidence, and that you’re there to help him. Let him speak and listen attentively. Show your compassion and don’t confront him. Guide him where you can to help him acknowledge that it was an unexpected setback for sure and that he has plenty of options.

Save the concrete work of job search until your next session. Chances are the next time you see Dave, he’ll be ready to work.

As you well know, difficult times make for difficult people. It’s common to struggle with feelings. The mission is to navigate that without adding further damage, and get them back on course. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy all the time but it is do-able.

Phrases to avoid

Don’t take this the wrong way. Watch them tense up. Don’t say it the wrong way

No offense but …Again watch them tense up. You’ve just announced that you’re about to offend the person. It’s not necessary.

I’m sorry to say … Again tension. Don’t apologise for what you’re about to say, say it in a way that doesn’t require apology, even if it’s something difficult.

Organizing technology

Sophie Turner led a very good webinar for OACM on March 8th of this year on the effect of technology on social skills and intimacy. Did you hear it? Sophie talked about many interesting things and of special meaning to our subject today is the constant interruption in our lives from technology.

To be interrupted in the middle of a sensitive conversation can be very problematic. So do your best to always protect your situation by turning off all phones and computers.
No rings and no pings and that applies to everyone in the room. Use a sign on the door that says you’re in a meeting, or a good old do not disturb sign. Have all these things in place before you begin your session or meeting. If you are interrupted, you’ll have to re-focus. An effective way of doing that is for the two of you to talk about the interruption – I am very sorry about that – it’s okay – etc. until the energy of the interruption has dissipated. Then return to your subject.

For us humans, there is some satisfaction in letting somebody have it. In truth it’s the easiest thing to do but there’s a big price to be paid for it because it damages relationships. That makes work harder. It costs co-operation, loyalty, focus and productivity. It makes a mess that then has to be cleared up. Why create that, when with some attention to how you say what you say, you can avoid it all. A bit of generosity goes a long way. And it’s way more fun. You’ll get a reputation for it too. I love to say that the best way to reduce stress is by creating less of it.

So, these are the basic steps to being so skillful in your personal communications that you can navigate any conversation: the easy, the delicate, and the difficult. Tuck them in your pocket and with practice they become second nature. Imagine that!

How has this changed your thinking about dealing with difficult clients? What ideas stick out for you? I’d be happy to hear your answers.

Eleanor James CPCC
“Say Anything to Anyone”
Personal Communications Consultant, Coach, Speaker

My job is moving to Europe but I won’t. Do I get severance?

Published Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, Nine to Five, Globe & Mail


I work for a multinational company headquartered in Europe. My position is being transferred to head office, but I am not interested in relocating to Europe. If I don’t accept the relocation or find another position locally within the company, my head count will be removed by a stipulated date. Is my employer legally obligated to pay me severance?


Daniel Lublin, Whitten & Lublin Employment Lawyers, Toronto

You can’t be forced to relocate to Europe (or anywhere else not reasonably close to your current job) unless you previously agreed in writing that your employer has the right to relocate you. Most employment agreements do not contain these types of clauses and, without them, a relocation cannot be imposed. Therefore, when your job is finally eliminated, you are indeed entitled to a severance package. The next question becomes what form of severance and how much you should receive. Your employer is entitled to provide you with “working notice” of the future elimination of your position and this would be one instance where that could make a lot of sense. If your employer is aware that you do not want to move, it would be smart to confirm your future termination date in writing, since the time period between the date that this is confirmed and your last day of employment is considered a form of working severance that could reduce or in some cases eliminate the need to pay you anything further after you leave. As in all cases, your overall severance is assessed based on your age, tenure and position.


Eleanor James, Consultant, The James Thinkstitute, Toronto

It’s common for multinationals to transfer employees and it’s not always made clear from the start.

During the interview phase, potential employees are well-served by asking about the corporate culture and the possibility of transfer. Find out how it works and think carefully about it before taking the job.

Saying no can be a career-limiting move and, if a job is dependent on a transfer, it can be hard on your family and complicated by assets such as a house. Multinationals that want to have company-wide best practices will sometimes send employees for six months to teach those practices in other countries. It’s effective for the company and less disruptive for employees.

But in this case you know that your job is going overseas and you don’t want to follow it. If you want to stay with the company and you know they see you as a valuable asset to be retained, recruit the help of your boss and Human Resources and spend the time finding a new fit within the company – a job of the same calibre as your current job.

If you’re not so keen to stay, it’s time to start looking for something new. If offered “working notice,” use the situation to help you in your search outside the company.

Failure to Communicate – The Elephant in the Room

Failure to communicate is a well-travelled elephant, present in rooms all over the world. That’s not to say people aren’t doing their best because they are doing their best. What if it could be better? Imagine that! That’s what we’re here to do, to make it better. Being aware of the words you choose and how they affect your tone makes all the difference there is to being a skilled communicator. It’s a wonderful place to be which I know, having made the trip myself.

I worked on a wildlife television show once upon a time and part of my job was to negotiate stock footage royalties with wildlife cinematographers and scientists and then to land the film we needed in time to make our air dates. We’d done business before with a small company in Paris and all the shipping was done by overnight courier which we paid for. So, where was the gorilla footage I’d ordered a week ago? I telephoned and was told it was sent by mail. “By mail?” said I. “What’s wrong with you people”, and the phone went dead. I’d been hung up on. It caused no end of problems for my colleagues and of course, I had to apologise.

Now, I would handle that situation in a completely different way. The objective was to get the film, not to insult a Parisian who had made a mistake. It was a boneheaded mistake, true, and I handled without an ounce of finesse.

These days I handle 94.5% of the moments in my life with lots of finesse and take great pride in that. I’m also having excellent experiences with people through this learnable skill that’s become second nature. My failure to communicate effectively taught me an important lesson that day and it’s always in the front of my mind. When there’s a problem, work to solve it rather than create another one.

Be at Peace Grasshopper – The Mechanic

Driving along in my ancient Saab 900 and I was feeling happy. I love driving, especially in my old friend. Even Top Gear said it was the best car ever made. And it just stopped. It would turn over but it wouldn’t move and I was in the left turn lane of a main road at 5:20 in the afternoon in Toronto rush hour. I put on the flashers and was waived across the road by a man who offered to push me onto a side street. Calls were made to CAA and to warn my mechanic Vito.

When I piled out of the tow truck at Vito’s garage I saw he was pretty stressed out. There was a bit of barely audible foul language. I like Vito a lot and this is a part of him that I’d never seen. He did say he had so much to do and he couldn’t get a break. He just needed to finish what he was doing and then he could talk to me. I was cool about my little calamity so I say, “no problem, be at peace grasshopper”. He looked at me and burst out laughing and I burst out laughing. Vito loosened up.

This was a diffusion tactic on my part. I recognised that he was struggling and I didn’t want to add to it. Instead I used a line from the old “Kung Fu” TV series. He saw that I appreciated his situation and said something that made him laugh. Lightened the whole thing up.

As I write this I don’t know what’s wrong with my ancient Saab. I haven’t heard from Vito yet but I’m pretty sure he’s going to do his best for me. If it means it’s time to let the car go, I think he’ll be gentle.

BONUS – Whenever I use “Be at peace grasshopper” it always gets a laugh. Guaranteed. I’ve been using it for a long time and it sits in my back pocket of ‘things to use when I need them’.  Feel free to use it too and carry it in your back pocket when you want to diffuse a situation, not make it worse. It made the whole exchange better for both of us because frankly, neither one of us needed any more aggravation.

I’m stuck between fighting bosses. What can I do?

Special to The Globe and Mail, Published Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016


I am caught in the middle of a dogfight between two bosses. What should I do?


Eleanor James, Personal communications consultant, James Thinkstitute, Toronto

I was once in this very position. There were 35 employees in the company and two active partners. They had separate responsibilities and equal power and it worked well for a long time. But something happened and suddenly those two men became bears with thorns in their paws, fighting all over the building.

The good thing was that we all knew what we were doing so we just carried on, avoiding consultation with them unless it was absolutely necessary. One smart thing those men did was hire well, and we all had the freedom to make decisions. That kept things going for a long time but eventually the company was shut down.

That may not work in your situation so sit down with your bosses together if you can, or separately if you must. Either way you’ll need some spine. The language you use is very important. “There is friction between you and I’m really sorry to see it. I don’t mean to interfere with that, but I do want to let you know that I’m now having trouble doing my job effectively. There are conflicting instructions [give concrete examples] and I need some clarification. We can talk about it now or set up a meeting later if you like.” See what comes of that. If nothing, go to HR and spill the beans.


Natalie MacDonald, Partner, Rudner MacDonald LLP, Toronto

Have you ever watched two dogs pulling at a stick? One pulls one way, and the other pulls the opposite way. Neither wants to give in, and neither is prepared to let go. This happens in the workplace as well, and can leave you stuck in the middle. How can you win? The only way is to ensure that you are taken out of the equation – but this is easier said than done.

In this type of scenario you have the beginning of a poisoned workplace. The first thing you should do is to ensure that you address the situation with both bosses at the same time. Before sitting down with them, it is imperative that you have concrete examples of the behaviour, and so you should keep a journal of the times and behaviour that has occurred and put you in the middle. Voicing your concerns, and providing specific instances of when and how the actions have affected you, is imperative toward working to a solution.

If there is still no change, ensure that you bring those examples, and the fact that you have attempted to work out a solution with your bosses, to HR. After your meeting with HR, capture the essence of the meeting in an e-mail, which therefore documents exactly what you attempted to do to resolve the situation.

But if nothing changes, even after discussing the matter with HR, it may be time to seek legal advice from an employment lawyer – one who can protect your rights and entitlements at both ends of the stick.

Power and Getting Along – You won’t believe what Clementine Churchill wrote to Winston!

A letter from Clementine Churchill to her husband Winston, then British Prime Minister during WWII.

My Darling,

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something you ought to know.

One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner – It seems your Private Secretaries have agreed to behave like school boys &’take what’s coming to them’  & then escape out of your presence shrugging their shoulders – Higher up, if an idea is suggested (say at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming. I was astonished & upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with & under you, loving you – I said this, & I was told ‘No doubt it’s the strain’ –

My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; and you are not as kind as you used to be.

It is for you to give the Orders & if they are bungled – except for the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury & the Speaker, you can sack anyone & everyone. Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm. … – ‘ I cannot bear that those who serve the Country & yourself should not love you as well as admire & respect you –

Besides, you won’t get the best results by irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality (Rebellion in War time being out of the question!)

Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful


From Clementine Churchill,

By her daughter Mary Soames

Clarity Around Coaching

Coaching is designed to help you get better at something. The right type of coach can help your hit a bat, for example. Or in this case, to elevate your communication skills to navigate any kind of conversation with ease.

It is a future focused, goal oriented working partnership.

An Important Distinction – Therapy, Consulting, Coaching

Just say for the sake of discussion, you want to develop your bike riding skill.

If you go to a Therapist, the Therapist might say, “Approach the bike. How does it feel? Do you have any previous experience with bikes?”

If you go to a Consultant, he or she will learn how to ride a bike if they don’t already know, and give you detailed notes.

If you go to a Coach, the Coach will say, ”Get on the bike and start riding and I’ll walk along beside you until you can do it yourself”.

Therapy focuses on insight to resolve past issues. Consulting is an exchange is information based on expertise. Coaching works with focused goal(s) until the goal(s) are achieved.

Are managers entitled to overtime pay for on-call duties?



As a salaried municipal employee with a manager title, I had to participate in on-call coverage for emergency management. This required me to be at my workplace within one hour of notification, for the duration of my on-call period, day and night.

The on-call period was typically two out of every four weeks. During these periods, I was extremely restricted in my personal activities, including not being able to leave be out of town. I received no compensation for the time I was required to be on call. I understood that disciplinary action could follow for failure to consistently respond within expectations. In contrast, on-call technical staff were paid for on-call time, with the result that my staff routinely made more income than I did.

The on-call requirement was not in my job description nor in my employment contract.

Did Ontario labour law allow my past employer to schedule managers for on-call work without compensation?


George Cottrelle, Partner at Keel Cottrelle LLP, Toronto

We assume that, as a manager, you were not in a trade union. Your rights to overtime pay, if any, were governed by the Ontario Employment Standards Act, which sets out minimum statutory entitlements for employees, as well as any provisions in your employment contract. We also assume that technical staff were governed by a collective agreement, which contained provisions for on-call pay.

Both hourly and salaried employees are entitled to overtime pay (generally, after 44 hours a week) under the act, unless specifically exempt. Persons whose work is supervisory or managerial are specifically excluded from the act’s overtime provisions. Accordingly, as a manager, you were not entitled to overtime pay.

The act has specific provisions when on-call hours are deemed to be work. performed by an employee. On-call time where the employee is not performing work, but is required to remain at the place of employment, is deemed to be work performed. Where the employee is not at the place of employment, and is simply ready for a call to work, on-call time is not deemed to be work. performed for an employer.

In addition to the act, your employment contract and any policies or practices of your employer applicable to managers would also determine whether you were entitled to additional compensation. Your employer’s position was that on-call coverage was a requirement of your job, without compensation, and we assume there was no policy or practice to the contrary.

We note that on-call coverage was introduced after you began your employment, and as such, potentially constituted a unilateral change to a term of your employment contract. A unilateral change by an employer, without consideration, to a fundamental term of the employment relationship does not have to be accepted by an employee, and may constitute constructive dismissal.


Eleanor James, Communications consultant, James Thinkstitute, Toronto

Two weeks is a long time for such a short leash, especially without compensation. The Employment Standards Act is clear on what is paid work for managers in your situation. Some employers make fundamental contractual changes as a means of constructive dismissal, a way of bullying an employee to quit instead of letting them go. Is it possible that’s what was happening here?

The working relationship sounds poor, too, and what a waste it is when that happens. It’s not uncommon with the mix of unionized and non-unionized workers, and it requires great management to balance both sides. Unfortunately, that’s not always on hand. Often it’s better and easier when people just put their cards on the table rather than trying to weasel out a change and betting the employee won’t fight it.

Employers would benefit from taking into account the consequences of their actions on fairness, morale, lawsuits and the organization’s reputation. A little finesse goes a long way.

How can I talk to HR when the director is the owner’s wife?



I have a problem with the owner of the company I work for that should really be resolved by Human Resources. But how do you handle that situation when the director of HR is the owner’s wife?


Eleanor James, Communications consultant, the James Institute, Toronto

The conflict of interest in the company’s managerial structure has you between a rock and a hard place. You want to resolve the problem rather than take a more rash or destructive path, and that’s good. Do some homework and contact the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) for assistance, which will be directed by the specific nature and scope of the problem. They might also direct you to an independent HR professional who could be a third party.

When you have the information, arrange to meet with your HR director, which is the proper channel and a no-fault move for you. Prepare yourself well for the meeting; think carefully about what you want to say and how you’re going to say it, including the problem, how it’s affecting your work and any suggestions you have. Choose your words carefully, use non-accusatory language and take out any emotional tone. Write it down and rehearse it out loud, a few times. All this preparation will calm you and greatly reduce your chances of inflaming the issue. You never know, the HR director might see your point or even agree with you. If not, there are lots of resources available based on what you want to do.


Eileen Dooley, Vice-president, Gilker McRae, Calgary

Having a problem with any owner of a business presents limitations on what you can do. Having family members in key leadership roles poses additional issues.

Perhaps, even though the two work together, they may have a separation with respect to work. The director of Human Resources may very well be approachable in discussing difficult matters regardless of her relationship with the owner. Some companies even have non-retaliation policies, which are supposed to protect employees who bring up concerns with the company.

If the concern has to do with a matter where Human Resources would typically be brought into the fold, such as harassment, discrimination, or any violation of human rights or workplace law, it is the right thing to do to bring it to the attention of someone who can invoke change. You would naturally start internally, but you may also want to consider bringing these types of matters to the attention of your local employment standards office.

If neither of these two options is viable, you may want to ask yourself if it makes sense to move past the issue, or walk away entirely.

One conversation, Two Ways – Spot the Huge Difference

He started it! The Franco vs Brantley Exchange

Except for the cat and baby videos, social media squeals with outrage and accusation. You can still hear it, almost, even when your devices are turned off.  But an incident jumped the shark and I read about in today’s newspaper.

The actor James Franco’s Broadway debut was as George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  How lucky to debut in such a poignant role with Chris O’Dowd as Lennie. Franco’s performance was reviewed by the New York Times as “respectful”, “generally inert” and that both actors “wear their archetypes like armour”. Then, like a hair tweezed from a nostril came the comment that Franco’s performance was “understated to the point of near invisibility”. 

That was the initial volley. Then came Franco’s return on Instagram posting the review from Variety which called his performance “flawless”.  Franco went on to say – get this – that the reviewer Ben Brantley and the NYT “had embarrassed themselves. Brantley is such a little bitch he should be working for Gawker.com instead of the paper of record”. Insulted now are Franco, the NYT, Brantley and Gawker.com.

I didn’t see the performance so I can’t comment on whether it was ‘nearly invisible’ or ‘flawless’. But I would suggest that performance critique or any kind of critique can be offered filled with sharp objects or with all the intelligence and experience possessed by the reviewer to recommend something, or not. In this case I felt whooshed back to grade 8, the meanest place of all. 

Sadly, Franco did the same thing back to Brantley and put some spin on it to drive in those sharp objects. According to him Brantley is a “bitch” AND “an idiot”.

Look at what these two professional men have created! If Brantley had considered a less vicious approach Franco might have paid more attention and possibly learned something. He might say in 20 years’ time, “It was Ben Brantley of the NYT who said a really important…” That will not come from this. And Franco could have remained silent and relaxed in the hammock of his “flawless” review.  Social media doesn’t hurt people’s feelings, people do. Don’t keep picking at the scab, let the wound heal over and away you go. Not sure what Chris O’Dowd did but I haven’t heard anything, and I won’t go looking for it either. 

There, that’s better.