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October 30, 2017

Workplace Words that Wound


By Lorie Reichel-Howe

Founder of Conversations in the Workplace

We have all felt the sting of cutting words, the stab of sarcasm and the sickening silence when a coworker is assaulted with a verbal bomb.  When workplace word wars occur, employees become casualties, relationships are strained and morale plummets. If managers fail to respond to verbal outbursts, organizational culture erodes, productivity is held hostage, and attrition skyrockets.


Let’s face it, when conflicts escalate and issues arise, managers and staff run to HR.  While individuals with concerns need to own their issues and release any expectation that HR will magically make their problem go away, they also need strategies for safely dialoguing with their “offender.”  Since relational breakdowns are inevitable in every human group, including the work family, HR, management and all employees need first responder training in effectively addressing harmful zingers, jabs and verbal bombs. Let’s explore some ways to respond to these behaviors.



Since telling, or demanding, someone to address a behavior is as helpful as a medical diagnosis without a recovery plan, let’s examine how a manager could respond to a frustrated employee (Marjorie or Michael) who, after being informed that his/her request for support from Help Desk has been received and, due to complications with the new system software installation, anticipate a two day delay in technical support, blurted out the following….


 “The Help Desk department should be renamed the Helpless Department.”


Request clarification

In a calm and firm manner, ask Michael/Majorie to please share the words he/she said about the Help Desk and explain what was meant by these words. In asking M/M to repeat these words, you invite ownership and explore meaning while avoiding accusing, lecturing or judging.


Acknowledge the person’s concerns

During conflict, our human tendency is to experience frustration, anger, even fear.  Upon hearing our unmet need acknowledged, we feel heard and understood thereby diffusing our anger. Being recognized and heard is a human need and, while it’s not a solution, it’s makes it easier to see another person’s or department’s needs. Acknowledging concerns doesn’t mean you approve of someone’s behaviors, it simply means you understand what motivated a behavior.


Communicate positive wants/desires for those involved

People are more open to working with you when they believe you care about them and desire a positive outcome for them.  It’s assuring to know someone cares about you especially when you’ve acted impulsively and spoken inappropriately. One way to communicate caring is to verbalize that you’d like Marjorie to get technical support in a reasonable time in order to complete her work. In addition share your positive desire for Help Desk, to have a more manageable case load and not be buried under tech glitches from a new system upgrade.  Lastly, include you desire for a positive work environment for everyone in the department where concerns are addressed respectfully.


Bring awareness of the impact of words and actions

Effective managers help others understand the impact of their words and actions. Communicate that when you hear the comment that the Help Desk Department should be renamed the Helpless Department, it seems like a department has been attacked. Comments like these create a negative work environment and divide departments instead of unifying the organization (uniting them?). In addition, people feel attacked and disrespected. Share your concern that once negativity spreads, it’s hard to stop.”


Invite brainstorming a different way to respond

Having shared impact, ask Michael if there are avenues other than Help Desk where he can obtain support. In asking Michael to brainstorm, you help him move from attacking others to problem solving. This is what you Michael to do the next time he is frustrated.


Request agreement that behavior will not occur moving forward and identify next steps

After discussing what happened and the impact, it’s equally important to get an agreement of behavior in the future from Marjorie. Ask her to make a commitment that all concerns will be respectfully verbalized. If you expect an apology for follow up action by Marjorie, clearly communicate this along with any consequences that will result from her behavior and whether documentation will occur.


Relational response training needed by all

While first aid kits are available for minor physical injuries and 911 calls can be made for medical emergencies, relational first-aid office kits do not exist. All employees, managers and HR staff need first responder training in effectively addressing harmful workplace zingers, jabs and verbal bombs.


About the Author

Lorie Reichel Howe is founder of Conversations in the Workplace. She leverages over 20 years of expertise in communication and relationship management. She equips managers and teams to have “safe conversations” – transformative dialogue that uncovers hidden workplace issues. Whether issues are challenging team dynamics, mismanaged expectations or good old-fashioned bad behavior, “safe conversations” foster greater innovation, inclusion and collaboration within organizations. 


Learn more about Lorie’s impact at

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