Strategies for Difficult Conversations – Part III

Every phone call has the potential to startle us and when this happens the most effective words can be difficult to find. For Heather Clarkson of the Employment Solutions Society this occurs “when people don’t follow through with what they were supposed to do, when they do not behave professionally toward you,” and she’s hoping I have a few suggestions. I do!

How can you get projects back on track in a phone conversation? What should you do when someone is rude?

Missed Deadlines

This has happened to all of us: We’re on a call expecting to hear about completed tasks and discuss next steps when we suddenly discover that very little has been done. There’s a moment of awkward silence and then …?

It’s important not to take the situation personally. As soon as you do, emotions will creep into the conversation that will limit your ability to hear and understand. Instead, express and share your disappointment and encourage discussion. Here are some phrases to consider:

“Oh, I understood we’d be sharing final results today.” Follow this phrase with silence to encourage a detailed reply.

“Oh, I’m disappointed. I was sure we’d have final results today. What’s causing the delay?”

“Oh, I’m surprised. I thought we’d agreed to discuss final results today. Tell me what’s happened.”

There can be a wide range of reasons why someone doesn’t keep a commitment. There can be family emergencies, health concerns, learning disabilities and simple forgetfulness. Encouraging someone to share these reasons allows you to maintain trust and helps build a foundation for getting the task done with a new deadline. For example:

You: “Oh, I’m surprised. I thought we’d agreed to discuss final results today. What’s causing the delay?”

Them: “I really struggled with finding the data I needed. I thought the research was going to be easy and straightforward, so I didn’t get started on it right away. It has taken much longer than expected and, while I’m definitely making headway, I’m going to need another week.”


You: “Oh, I understood we’d be sharing final results today.”

Them: “Uh, well, I wasn’t sure if that’s what we agreed, so I only got started on it yesterday and haven’t been able to finish.”

While the answers may annoy or frustrate you, what’s important is there is a clear understanding of “why”. This can then be included when defining the next deadline:

You: “Let’s set a new deadline of a week from today, and we’ll include a quick check-in to make sure the research is progressing and see if you need any help.”

Email also plays an important role here. For any conversation that includes assignments, deadlines or agreements, follow up with a summary of who’s agreed to do what, when, and how you will communicate if difficulties arise.

Rude Behaviour

This one appears in every customer service workshop I deliver. The most important thing to know is … really rude behaviour is emotional behaviour. It is most often an expression of anger but it can also be caused by frustration, confusion and sometimes a limited vocabulary.

When someone is emotional, they cannot hear, and without being able to hear, it’s possible they’re unaware of how rude or aggressive they’ve become. So, the first step is to tell them in a calm and friendly voice:

“Customer, know that I really do want to help you with this issue/continue our conversation but your language/tone is rude/abusive. If you can change your language/tone, we can keep working together on a solution.”

For some people, this is all they will need. For others, their emotions are in total control and no matter what you say, their behaviour won’t change. In fact, it may even escalate and start to include threatening language. In this case, you want to roll out of the call:

“Customer, know that I’m not allowed/don’t allow myself to stay on calls with this level of rude/abusive language/behaviour. I’m going to end our call now.”

If you are an employee, tell your direct supervisor about the call and have someone in management respond when the customer calls back (which they will). If you are the owner of the company, or in senior management, tell the customer, “I’m more than willing to help you with this situation but we’re not communicating very well at the moment. I’ll call you back in 30 minutes and in the meantime, I’ll research the situation.” Creating this break in the conversation can help calm things down.

Every employer should have a written policy on how they want staff to handle rude and abusive calls. These calls are emotionally exhausting and staff should be able to end them politely when necessary in order to enjoy their job and continue to work with other customers successfully.

What are your techniques for these types of calls?


Closing a sale is the natural outcome of inspiring great conversations and listening intently to our potential customers.

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