transcript of “How to Get Your Tone Right in Tricky Work Conversations” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 10)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast, episode 10: “How to Get Your Tone Right in Tricky Work Conversations.”

Alison: This week I’m going to do something a little different on the show instead of taking a listener call. This is an episode I have been excited to do since we launched the show, and it’s actually one of the reasons why I thought a podcast could be really helpful.

As you may know, I write a work advice column where I answer letters from people who are often in tricky situations with their managers or their coworkers. One thing I do a lot in my column is give sample language that they can use to talk to the person, and along with that I often talk about the right tone to use in that conversation, because tone really, really matters. Of course on my website, my answers are in writing and it’s not always easy to convey tone in writing, so I wanted to devote this episode of the show to actually demonstrating tone, because this is such a perfect medium to do that in. We’re going to talk a little bit about tone at work in general, and then I want to go through some specific examples and show you the tone that I would recommend using in a few different potentially tricky situations.

About tone at work in general: most of the time with tricky work conversations, you want to sound calm, matter of fact, and collaborative. Generally, the tone that you want is the same tone that you would use to raise any other work problem, so if you imagine yourself saying something that isn’t at all emotionally charged — ” I’m having trouble getting the software to run the way you showed me,” or something where there’s a work problem that you want to raise and talk about, but that doesn’t have any kind of stickiness to it — that is actually pretty close to the tone that you want in more sensitive conversations too. You don’t want your tone to convey that you feel really awkward or nervous about bringing something up, and part of that is because to a large extent, people will take their cues from you. If you’re acting really worried about bringing something up or if you’re frustrated or accusatory or hostile, the other person is more likely to respond as if this is a very big deal. But if you’re calm and warm and matter of fact and you sound like you’re looking for some collaborative problem solving, they’re more likely to experience it as less emotionally charged. And really, collaborative problem-solving is what you want in most of these conversations. So that’s the tone.

Let’s talk about some specific examples of times when tone will really matter and what your tone should sound like in each of those. I was looking back through past letters that I’ve answered at the Ask a Manager website to find some examples of times where tone was really important. Let’s run through a few of those.

One time that tone comes up a lot is when you need to push back on your boss. Your boss is expecting you to do something unreasonable and you need to say that, but of course there are power dynamics to navigate when you’re saying no to your boss. I answered a letter last year from someone who had given 30 days’ notice at her job and her boss was trying to drop all kinds of major new assignments on her – things that would mean working pretty much around the clock during her remaining time there, which of course she didn’t want to do. She wanted to know if it was reasonable for her to say no, to basically refuse to take on this overwhelming workload during her final weeks there. And yes, it is very reasonable to say no to that, and it’s a case where getting the tone right will really help.

I’m going to tell you what I advised her to say, but first I want to talk about the tone to say it in. In a situation like this, the idea is to say it like of course the boss will see the reason in what you’re saying, since any reasonable person would. You don’t want to sound overly deferential or like you’re asking for permission to not take on that new work, because you’re not really asking for permission to take this reasonable course of action. You’re just explaining how you’re going to proceed and acting as if of course that will be fine because it would be crazy if it weren’t. So here is the language that I advised her to use. I’m going to say this in the tone that I recommend and then we’ll talk about why that tone is so important. I recommended that she say something like this:

[Matter of fact] “I have looked at what I can reasonably get done during my remaining time here. I can do A and B. I can’t also do this writing project unless I push C and D aside to make time for it. Which of those would you prefer that I work on?”

So that’s the language and that’s the tone. It’s super matter of fact, you’re not inching toward it or dancing around it delicately. You’re assuming that a reasonable person will see the reason in what you’re saying. But then if you still get told, “Nope, you have to do it all,” then you would go to something like this:

[Matter of fact] “Looking at how much time each of these will take and how much time I have left, I know I won’t be able to do all of it before I leave. I definitely hear you that it’s important, I just don’t want you to count on more getting done than what I realistically be able to do because I want you to be able to plan. So my plan is, I’m going to make sure A and B get done. I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll be able to do the rest, but if you want me prioritizing any of this differently, just let me know.”

That language and tone are firm, but professional. Some people in that situation would get frustrated and their tone would show that, or they’d be too meek and deferential and hesitant, which the boss might take advantage of. You just want to be direct, matter of fact, and signal that of course what you’re saying is reasonable, because it is.

By the way, you might be noticing as I demonstrate these examples that my tone isn’t dramatically different from my normal tone that I talk to you in on the show – and in this example in particular, that’s very much the point. You’re treating this as a normal conversation, not a big sensitive thing – because again, so frequently people will take their cues from you.

Let’s do an example where the tone is more noticeably different. Let’s say that you want to ask a coworker to stop doing something annoying. This can feel pretty emotionally fraught to people and they’re not always sure exactly how to approach it. For an example with this one, since I get so many letters about coworkers who make annoying noises (and I really do get a ton of letters about annoying noises), let’s say that you work right next to someone who chews gum really loudly all day long. Which is something that I’ve had more than one letter about – this is a plague in our offices, I think. It may sound like a small thing, but if you’re stuck hearing it all day long, it can be pretty annoying. But you don’t want to approach this as a big serious issue because, I mean, it’s gum chewing, it’s not a big serious issue. You want your tone to convey that you know it’s not a huge deal, but you’d still appreciate it if your coworker could alter what she’s doing, so you might say:

[Light and casual] “Hey, I am sure you don’t know that I can hear your gum all the way over here, but for some reason I can, and it can get distracting. (Laughs) I feel silly asking you this, but is there any way you could try to chew it more quietly?”

The reason for that tone and even the slight laughing there is that it signals that you haven’t lost perspective. You realize that you might be being nitpicky. You could even make it all about yourself, sort of about your own neuroses. You can say something like:

[Light and casual] ” (Laughs) I know this is weird. The sound of gum being chewed is like nails on a blackboard to me. Is there any chance I can ask you to try to chew it more quietly?”

All right, let’s do a more serious one. Let’s say your boss gives you some feedback that seems kind of off-base to you and you want to explain your perspective in case it changes the way your boss sees things – or who knows, maybe you’re missing important information and if you knew what your boss knew, it would change your perspective. You want to explain where you’re coming from but you can’t be defensive about it or you’ll look like you’re resistant to feedback and that’s no good. For tone with this, you want to be really open to the idea that you really could be wrong. Here’s an example of what it could sound like:

[Calm and non-confrontational] “I had pushed X back by a week because I thought we had a few months on it, and it had looked to me like we were going to miss that deadline for Y. Was I looking at that the wrong way?”

Or here’s a different example:

[Calm and non-confrontational] “In the past that client asked me to focus more on X for them, so I just thought they would appreciate me including it with the proposal, but should I have checked with you about that before I just moved forward with it?”

If you hear the tone there, it’s genuinely open to the possibility that you could be wrong. You’re not arguing. You’re conveying that you want to make sure that you understand things, but you’re not just asserting that you’re correct.

Let’s do one more. I’m going to take this one from my Ask a Manager book that’s coming out on May 1st, because it contains a bunch of these since it’s all about what to say in difficult work situations. One of the situations in the book is about what to do if you want to say no to a new job responsibility. Of course, whether or not you can do that is going to depend on a few different factors: how reasonable it is to expect the person in your job to take on the work, the rest of your workload, your standing with your employer, how valued you are. If those factors aren’t in your favor, you probably can’t push back on something like this – but if they are, you can try speaking up.

When you do it, if you do it, your tone matters. It can’t signal, “I’m refusing to do this new work,” because that’s insubordinate and sort of at odds with the power dynamics inherent in the relationship. You want your tone to signal, “I’m hoping we might be able to handle this differently, what do you think?” So it might sound like this:

[Matter of fact] “I’m pretty concerned about fitting this in with the rest of my workload because my plate is pretty full with X, Y, and Z, and I don’t know how feasible it will be to fit that in on top of it.”

Or it might be this:

[Matter of fact] “I am honestly not sure I would be the best person for this because it requires skills in A and B, which you probably know are not my strong suits. Would you be open to seeing if someone else is interested in taking this on and having me just continue to focus on and C and D, which I think I’m doing pretty well at?”

Or even, let’s say it’s a pretty serious thing that could be a deal-breaker for you. Then it might be something like this:

[Calm but concerned] “I want to be upfront with you. One of the reasons I took this job over others was that it didn’t involve doing X. I am of course willing to help out in a pinch, but I’m concerned about making it a permanent part of my responsibilities just since it’s so far afield from what I want to be doing.”

So if you see the tone in all of those, it’s not adversarial, it’s not aggressive, it’s, “Hey, here’s this concern that I have. Are you open to talking about it?”

Okay, so there are a bunch of examples of tone in different situations, and I hope hearing these out loud is helpful.

Well, that was a lot of talking from just me today since we didn’t have a guest, but I will be back next week with our more traditional format where I will talk with a listener about a work issue they’re facing and give advice.

Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast, produced in conjunction with Penguin Random House and Anchor. If you like what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Play. If you’d like to ask a question on the show, email it to And check out my new book from Ballantine Books called Ask a Manager: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. It hits stores May 1st, and it’s the ultimate guide for tackling any and all workplace dilemmas. You can pre-order a copy today at or anywhere books are sold.

Thanks for listening! I’m Alison Green, and I’ll be back next week with another question.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.