Getting it Wrong in conversation with Eleanor James, founder of The Jamesthinkstitute

In this episode, Alex talks with Eleanor James, founder of The Jamesthinkstitute, who trains employees and groups to “say anything to anyone.” The Jamesthinkstitute is a forum that teaches people skillful communication to remove the barriers to workplace and personal conversations, now more important than ever in employee engagement and retention.

Snark Infested Waters

Woe is us! It does seem that all hell has finally broken loose and there’s not much we can do about most of it, except carry on.

It feels like living in a salad, constantly tossing: this pops, then that pops, then another thing, never ending popping. A virus, tremendous loss, maybe war, protests of all kinds (hey, what’s not to protest), all bad for business, etc. I know you know the list.

It makes sense that we are short-tempered, it’s so stressful. Social media set the precedent of behaviour years of ago saying horrible things to people they know, and to complete strangers. It’s mean. What’s to be gained? Only misery from what I can see. But it is easier to be mean than it is to be kind. Kindness takes willingness and some presence of mind. There’s also strength of character needed so you’re not blowing you stack all the time. It’s bad for your health too. I feel bad just writing about it.

Yet in the midst of this we have seen many kindnesses, right along side of the strain. Borrowing from our indigenous citizens, here’s a little story. A child is speaking to an elder about a dilemma, not knowing what to do. The elder says, “We all have two wolves within us, a good wolf and a bad wolf, and sometimes they fight”. The child asks, “which one wins?” The elder answers saying, “The one you feed”.

Our situation is not hopeless if we look at it this way – which wolf do you want to feed?

Customer Experience and Problem Solving

This Week’s Very Short Story


The Customer Experience and Problem Solving

In my experience, these two ideas stopped dating around the year 2000. Until that time, their relationship spawned happy customers willing to thank you for the help offered and the job done – to everyone’s satisfaction. Product went to customer, profit to seller.

Yesterday, a friend with a broken leg and food allergies was looking for some customer service. She had ordered groceries, lots, for delivery to her building. COVID days mean delivery to the lobby only which is fair enough. She explained she had a broken leg and could the groceries be divided into smaller parcels rather than the usual big box, so she could pick them up herself. She was put on hold. The news she got was that her order had been cancelled and her money refunded. It was not the boss or the owner who made this decision. No one’s problem was solved. The seller’s experience was as unrewarding as the purchaser’s, who has also decided to shop somewhere else.

Training in problem solving when dealing with customers, seems to be no where on the list these days. That’s got to affect profits. There’s so much competition in every field, you’d think that customer experience and retention through the simple act of service, would be at the top of the list.

Teach employees tons about the company: what you do, how you do it, the products, the goal. Invite them in to represent you. There’s more to it than taking payment and sending e-mails. And, because so many of the front-line people are young, they need to be taught about the finer points of dealing with others. I had that training and I relied on it. Teach them how to speak to customers. Problem solving is very rewarding and it’s great when it comes with profit too. Underfunding and MORE technology – not the answer.

Yes, there are also difficult customers – which is the focus of the next “This Week’s Very Short Story”.

If I’m falsely accused of sexual harassment at work, do I have any legal recourse?

NIne To Five | Special to The Globe and Mail | January 7, 2018


As a male manager hiring female college students for restaurant patio work in the summer, I am concerned about the recent wave of sexual-harassment allegations. Our interviews are conducted one-on-one in a closed office. If even one candidate accuses me of extending so-called unwanted attention or of making a sexual advance, could I be fired? What can men do to protect themselves in interview situations? Is there a legal recourse when someone makes a false allegation?


George Cottrelle. Partner, Keel Cottrelle LLP, Toronto

There has been a seismic shift in society’s intolerance of workplace sexual harassment, which has resulted in significant changes in employers’ responses to allegations of workplace sexual harassment.

Workplace sexual harassment is prohibited under applicable Canadian human rights codes and workplace safety legislation. Persons applying and interviewing for jobs are entitled to protection from workplace sexual harassment under the applicable human rights codes.

Workplace sexual harassment is serious employee misconduct, in violation of an employee’s duties under their employment relationship, and applicable workplace policies. Depending upon the nature of the misconduct in question, a single incident of workplace sexual harassment can constitute grounds for immediate dismissal.

Employers need to follow their workplace harassment policies, but, in any event, should investigate allegations of workplace sexual harassment. If your employer terminates your employment based on allegations of workplace sexual harassment that are not investigated and substantiated, or that do not constitute cause at law, then you may have recourse against your employer for damages for wrongful dismissal.

The best protection for employees to avoid allegations of workplace sexual harassment is to be vigilant and ensure that their workplace conduct and practices are compliant with their legal duties and workplace policies. The closed-door, one-on-one interviews by you with college students for summer patio positions are potentially problematic, and your practice needs to change. Ideally, you should include another co-worker in the interviews, but at a minimum, the interviews should take place in a more public setting.


Eleanor James, Senior communications consultant, The James Thinkstitute, Toronto

Be responsible for your own behaviour. There’s a line there, don’t cross it. You’re hiring and interviewing young women for jobs. It’ll be the job they want, not advances from a man they don’t know. I was in this spot myself, age 18. After a 10-minute private interview with the restaurant manager, he asked me to stand and turn around. I said no and left. I told my father who said, “Good for you!” I thank him for that respect, a lot, still.

I recommend talking with your colleagues about interview procedures so everyone is on the same professional page. This question is sadly common. We know from all sorts of stories in the news that making an accusation of sexual misconduct is no walk in the park for the accuser either. Build yourself a reputation as a gentleman. Speak without sexual innuendo, no leering, or touching, know where your eyes are, and stick to business. Don’t shortchange yourself with shabby behaviour.

Did you watch the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour on PBS

Where you there for it?

Did you watch the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour on PBS this past Monday? This time it was given to David Letterman, well-deserved after making zillions laugh and for decades. Last year’s recipient Bill Murray was side-splitingly funny, dressed better than Henry VIII and he delivered his tribute to Dave while eating. He saw that Dave’s family was fed too, way up high in their box seats. It’s not easy to do any of that while you’re eating. Bill is a master.

Then I heard a story I didn’t know. That the late musician Warren Zevon often sat in for Paul Schafer. How I missed that I do not know. When Zevon was told he didn’t have much time here on earth, Dave did a whole hour with him. I didn’t know that either.

Musician Eddie Vedder came out and sang the Zevon song “Keep Me In Your Heart” with Paul Schafer at the piano, some wonderful singers and a strong and gentle band. Every time I think about it I get goosebumps. Why? It was a sublime performance, everyone so talented and perfectly unified in telling that musical story. They did it together. Letterman said, “It doesn’t get any better than that” and he was right. They created something absolutely beautiful together and we could do with a lot more of it these days. They told a great story with music, on top of another great story, a communication of artistry. I hope Warren Zevon is on Cloud Nine.

You can see it online.

November 20, 2017

This isn’t the job I was hired for. What is my exit strategy?



I was hired for a senior-level strategy-based role that seemed like a great fit on paper. Now that I am here, the gap between the role as outlined and the day-to-day reality is night and day. I have been forthright with management that I have very little to do and that the role I was hired for has not really materialized. They are not concerned and keep reassuring me that things will get busier, but I don’t believe this will happen.

I have just passed my probation period and am considering approaching my VP to figure out an exit plan. I’m concerned that I’ve wasted these last months in a role that will now stand out on my resumé due to the short tenure and am wondering if I can ask for a letter or recommendation that basically says that they misrepresented the job description (a director-level role on paper that is co-ordinator/assistant level in reality). Is there any way I can ask for an severance package based on this misrepresentation? Can I leave it off my resumé altogether, and if not, how do I explain this short a tenure to potential employers so it doesn’t look like I was fired?


Kyle Couchm, President and CEO, Spectrum Organizational Development Inc.

Resumés are a funny thing. They are a non-legally binding document and most organizations are more fearful of additions versus omissions. Resumés are intended to be a sales pitch about your qualifications and competence with respect to the prospective job opportunity. Therefore, I fully recommend adding your most recent role at this organization.

With that said, I would use a more progressive resumé approach of listing it as a project accomplishment, as opposed to a career history. While your tenure is brief, you can point to the fact that a) it was a director-level position and b) you were hyper-productive. I suggest you request a letter of recommendation in the event that this most recent post was questioned, but don’t add it to your initial package to the “next” employer.

I am a big fan of “fit” between employee and employer. Your drive to move on is the right one. Use this as a learning opportunity, specifically around asking more pointed questions and being more cautious and forthright in your next interview.


Eleanor James, Consultant, coach and speaker, The James Thinkstitute

This is an oddball situation and from your description, it does seem more disorganized than malicious. Nonetheless, it’s a bridge not to be burned. Do approach your VP to work out an exit plan giving both of you time to find replacements. Though I see your point about misrepresentation, I’m not sure it would hold up to severance, a lawyer can advise you.

Avoid throwing around blame, use all the finesse you’ve got. Be clear with them that the company has a lot to its credit (you applied for the job) but it’s not a fit for you (a.k.a. you passed probation but the company didn’t). With regard to your job history/resumé, ask for a letter from the company (perhaps offer a draft) explaining that the role for which you were hired has not materialized due to uncontrollable circumstances. That way, everybody saves face and you won’t have anything to hide.


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.