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Online Edition — March 2003

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Walking the Talk: An Interview with Chris Richardson
Looking Toward the Future
Ask the PowerPhrase® Expert



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Ask the PowerPhrase® Expert

Here’s another installment of our column by Meryl Runion, a communications expert who wrote the book, PowerPhrases! The Perfect Words to Say It Right and Get the Results You Want.

I am hoping that you can help with some suggestions on how to deal with a situation in our office. One of our long-time employees, Jackie, has never seemed satisfied with anything the company has done. She complains often about a lot of things, but she constantly complains about her salary. She does this openly and in more covert and subtle ways. Jackie also periodically exhibits signs of depression.

I have been a co-worker of Jackie’s for 13 years. I have no direct supervisory responsibilities over Jackie, but I am a partner in the business. She laughed at me when I told her I was buying into the company and told me, “Buying into this stupid company is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”

Occasionally, I have asked Jackie what it would take to make her happy. The answer I normally get is something like, “Well, certainly more than a 3% raise!” She tells me this in spite of knowing that it’s been a very rough year in our industry with layoffs and pay cuts being the norm.

Generally, Jackie does her work well. When is it appropriate to tell Jackie that she needs help that she can’t get from complaining? And what is the best way to do so?

The PowerPhrase Expert: I hear your concern on many different levels, and you can speak from any or all of these.

First, as a partner in the business, you have a responsibility to keep morale high. Jackie’s words can be damaging. I was impressed with something a manager once said to a good worker who continued to complain about salary, “I am paying you as much as I can for the excellent work you do. I want you to go home and decide if you can afford to work here because your complaints are demoralizing to me and to the entire office. I hope you decide you can keep working with us.” If this fits your situation, it may be appropriate to tell her.

Second, as a friend, you have concern for Jackie’s well-being. I suggest you say, “Jackie, I am concerned about you. You don’t seem happy. Is there some way I can support you?”

Finally, as a human, you seem frustrated with Jackie’s complaints. I expect that when Jackie complains, it triggers a desire to help, as well as a sense of powerlessness because it seems there is nothing you can do. If I am reading the situation correctly, express that frustration. You might say, “Jackie, I care about you, and I’m uncomfortable when you complain because I want to cheer you up, and I don’t know how. Before you complain, can you tell me what you want from me? That would make it easier for me to listen.”

Sometimes people complain because there is something they need to say, and they don’t know how to say it. The above PowerPhrases should help to draw out the comments.

When I am working out a problem with a co-worker at my desk, it seems as if someone else invariably jumps into my conversation and attempts to input his/her own ideas—without being asked. Is there a good phrase to use to set a boundary on this behavior?

I also have another issue related to people interrupting conversations into which they have not been invited. I have no idea how to graciously handle someone who does this to me. What do you suggest?

The PowerPhrase Expert: In response to your first question, I would use one of the
following two PowerPhrases:

  • “Thanks for the input! If we do not come up with a solution between the two of us, we would love to pay you a visit.”
  • “We’re in the middle of some rough ideas right now. We would be happy to run them by you when we have something more concrete.”

If this doesn’t do the trick, I recommend something a little stronger, such as “I appreciate your eagerness to help, but right now this is between the two of us.”

In response to your second question, try saying, “I need to give Joan my complete attention right now. We really need to finish our conversation. I will be happy to give you my full attention once I’m done talking with Joan” or “Joan and I are discussing something between the two of us right now. Can we talk later?”

MERYL RUNION began her career by designing effectiveness measures for use by police departments all across the country. Runion has a master’s degree in the science of creative intelligence and is certified as a stress management expert. She is known as a speaker and author across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. You may contact her via e-mail at .

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