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Effectively Managing Communications With Employees Generally–And In Workplace Investigations

Imagine this:  As you are conducting an internal investigation of an employee complaint, you get the distinct impression that your conversation with the employee is not going well.  The employee is repeating points that were previously made.  The employee is rambling through a disorganized recap of the background, seemingly lost in the details. At some point, you may sense that the employee is freezing up and developing a sense of antagonism toward you because you are not “validating” their claims. The employee seems to be stuck in the past, unable to turn a corner and move forward with workarounds and other options.  Was it something you said?  Something you didn’t say?  Was it your tone of voice or perceived attitude?  Was it the context and sensitive nature of the conversation coupled with your position in the company? Was it your failure to organize the conversation and help the employee focus one one topic at a time?  Was it your listening style and body language?  Or a combination of all of these factors–and more? 

Breaking down the elements of a dynamic interaction with an employee is a complex process, but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to gain a greater understanding of the elements of the interaction and to learn ways to improve communication.  A number of specialized communication techniques may be used by all levels of human resources professionals to effectively investigate and manage difficult workplace conversations. Human relations specialists may find that these techniques offer new ways of handling employee interactions, human relations managers may use these techniques as part of a toolkit for training and staff development, and human relations executives may find that these techniques enhance existing skills or are applicable in conflicts among C-suite executives.  Among these techniques are “acknowledging” to assure the employee that you understand their their point of view and “professional listening,” to make sure that your listening style doesn’t interfere with an employee’s message.  In addition, “neutral reframing” can de-escalate conflict and “problem-solving reframing” can help an employee successfully navigate through a conflict by focusing on the future and moving away from blaming others by focusing on the employee’s interests.  Finally, “re-directing” can be used to move a conversation constructively from point to another and to examine specific points in greater depth.

Before moving into some of the specific communication techniques and how to use them,  questions may arise, “Why bother?  Why take the time and energy to figure out ways to convert a negative communication into a constructive conversation?  I’m a business person–not a psychologist!  Time is money and it takes too much time to psychoanalyze someone or to fix their personal problems.”  One answer to that question is that learning ways to communicate in a constructive and skillful way can prevent or minimize blow-ups, fights, feuds, and lawsuits. A little care on before a dispute arises or as a dispute is emerging can help to change the ending, move away from finger-pointing and blaming, and guide the conversation toward a constructive resolution.  By using specialized communication techniques, a human resources professional with any level of experience and expertise can significantly influence the quality and productivity of work for employees who become embroiled in workplace disputes.  They can help to find meaningful and lasting solutions to seemingly intractable interpersonal workplace problems.  And, when used properly, specialized communication techniques take less time to use than endless, repetitive, hostile conversations.

One key to strong communication is to separate the people from the problem, i.e., identify the work-related issue that is involved rather than reacting to or summing up a problem as a defect the person.  This approach has been used for centuries but was more recently attributed to the authors of “Getting to Yes–Negotiating Agreements Without Giving In.”  It’s human nature to think of a person as the problem.  Employees and others fall prey to this natural tendency.  “Attribution” is a psychological phenomenon where people in conflict situations tend to reduce the issues to one single simplistic problem–the other person.  The phrasing is familiar to everyone, “You are so lazy!”  “You just don’t care!”  “You are incompetent!” “You are so (fill in the blank, usually with one or more choice, negative all-consuming conclusions).  Usually, the issue is a project or report that wasn’t done right or on time or within cost constraints. The specific issue was the conduct of the person, the actions they took or failed to take, project management, timing, or the costs.  To over-simplify a problem by reducing the problem to the person leaves very few options for resolution (e.g., if the problem is defined as the person, what is the only way to get rid of the problem?).  If the problem is defined in terms of the issues, i.e., the conduct or action/inaction of a person, the possibilities for correcting and resolving the problem expand exponentially.  Therefore, any attempt to use the specialized communication techniques discussed below necessarily includes a commitment to separate people from the problem in analyzing the issues and deciding how best to proceed. 

Acknowledgment  People yearn to be heard and, just as importantly, to be understood.  In the hurly burly world of business, with its time pressures and other challenges, it’s easy for people to fall into a time-pressured “point/counter-point” style of conversing about employee complaints.  This conversational style involves the forceful assertion of one’s opinion and, usually, the formulation of a response while the other person is still talking.  In the process, very little, if any attention is given to hearing the other person out, making sure that the other person has been heard accurately, and suspending judgment and critique until the other person has finished making their points.  One classic, over-used, and generally unproductive response that is often used hand-in-hand with this point/counter-point process is, “Yes…but…,” which all but cancels a speaker’s points, invalidates the speaker, and produces a new barrier to communication–resistance and resentment.  Employees sometimes engage in this type of unproductive communication–and it can be occur among professionals as well. 

“Acknowledgment” is a specialized communication technique, used by salespeople, therapists, professional negotiators and mediators, workplace investigators, and savvy human resources professionals that conveys and confirms a person’s understanding of another’s statements.  Acknowledgment is the often-overlooked opportunity to pause a conversation momentarily to demonstrate that a speaker’s statements have been understood.  It takes seconds to acknowledge a speaker’s statements, but the positive impact on communication is profound.  Equally valuable, acknowledgment minimizes the repetition of information where a speaker does not believe previous statements have been heard and understood.  Examples include, “I understand what you are saying,” “I see the way you are looking at the problem,” “I get it–staffing and personnel are in short supply for you,” “You have heard your cube mate listening to the radio and making personal phone calls during work hours.”  The essence of acknowledgment is that the listener takes a moment to verbally recognize what the speaker just said.  Importantly, acknowledgment does not require that a listener agree or disagree with the statements made by a speaker.  Acknowledgment is an element of skillful communication that we often skip in an attempt to resolve issues quickly and decisively.  Yet, it only takes a moment and the positive effects of acknowledgment are powerful. 

Using acknowledgment effectively can be challenging, but there are some rules of the road that can be helpful.  Be careful of clichés like, “I hear you” or one of the trending phrases, “Right?”  These clichés can be lead to misunderstandings because they carry the connotation that the listener agrees with the speaker.  Also, be mindful that employees and people in general have finely-tuned radar for picking up insincere, casual acknowledgments. To be most effective, an acknowledgement should be brief and worded to fit specific statements made by an employee. 

As mentioned previously, one of the most powerful elements of acknowledgment is that the person using this communication skill is not required to convey their agreement–or disagreement–with the speaker.  Due to this unique characteristic, acknowledgment often is effective during the information-gathering stages of a conflict. In such cases, acknowledgment is often used during exploratory or investigative discussions, where it is too early to render judgments or conclusions.

A common mistake in any information-gathering process is to form impressions and conclusions prematurely and to modify them in self-serving ways during the course of an investigation.  If a human resources professional pre-judges something, they may fall victim to “confirmation bias” (listening only for information that supports a pre-determined conclusion) or “assimilation bias” (listening only for information that favors one person or another).  It is critical for anyone investigating an employment complaint to allow an employee to completely finish their statements before drawing conclusions about their conduct.  This usually involves a degree of suspending judgment until sufficient information is available to realistically evaluate the circumstances.  A secondary, but no less important benefit of acknowledgment is that the listener will not miss vital pieces of information while they are privately analyzing a speaker’s comments while the speaker is still speaking.

Acknowledgment can also be helpful during information exchange communications, e.g., when people are sharing information informally, during informal or departmental meetings, during executive sessions.  Finally, acknowledgment can be used in adversarial, post-conclusion situations, such as termination conversations or exit interviews, where a human resources professional wants to confirm their understanding of another’s viewpoint, but differs with an employee about the ultimate solution or action plan. 

Note that acknowledgment is not a form of “validation,” which is a commonly used technique for showing support and agreement with another person.  Validation conveys concurrence with the accuracy of a person’s statements and it implies support and alliance.  Validation sounds like, “For sure,” “You’ve got that right,” and, “I’m with you.”  Validation, by definition, involves a process of “taking sides,” while acknowledgment is a neutral recognition of another person’s point of view.  Human resources professionals and other business people risk confusion, misunderstandings, and accusations of inconsistency and being “two-faced” if they use validation instead of acknowledgment during exploratory conversations and, later, they make decisions that are adverse to the employee. 

Interestingly, many people seem to be able to tolerate differences of opinion or disagreements over executive decisions if they believe that the other person has given them an opportunity to be fully heard and, in addition, has fully understood and appreciated their statements.    This makes acknowledgment one of the most powerful specialized communication tools that can be used to demonstrate understanding and, along with it, to convey the implicit message that the listener sincerely cares about the employee’s message  When it is properly used, acknowledgment can help to enhance even the most difficult, uncomfortable, and awkward workplace conversations.

Reframing  “Reframing” has many definitions and applications.  For example, in its broadest sense, reframing occurs whenever a statement is re-phrased or re-worded.  Reframing can also refer to re-define a problem/solution or re-cast a negative situation in a positive light. Reframing a debate refers to re-sequencing the issues and viewing them from a different perspective.  For purposes of communication in the workplace, however, the focus will be on two specific types of reframing:  neutral reframing and problem-solving reframing.

Neutral Reframing  An employee states, “My supervisor has been sexually harassing me!  He mistreats me and other women in the office!  He’s a dinosaur because he doesn’t know the way women want to be treated these days!  I can’t possibly work with him another day!”  The dangers of a human resources professional repeating these words, even to show that they were heard, are obvious.  It is not conducive to a constructive conversation to repeat–and reinforce–negative language.  How then, can a human resources professional confirm they have heard the employee without escalating the problem by adopting the employee’s language? 

Acknowledgment, defined above, can be used to give the employee recognition for their feelings and what they have experienced, e.g., “I can see that you are very upset about the way you have been treated.”  Note, no agreement, no disagreement, no validation, no reinforcement or escalation. 

When hostile, accusatory language is used by an employee, another communication skill that can be effective is “neutral reframing.” Neutral reframing occurs when a listener extracts hostile, inflammatory, profane, or accusatory language and restates the message in neutral terms.   For example, the employee’s complaint (above) can be neutrally reframed as, “You are concerned about the way your supervisor treats you and you want his treatment to be consistent with current company policy and norms.”  The employee chimes in, “That’s right!”  With the employee’s response, you know you’ve done a good job of neutral reframing and the employee feels s/he has been heard, accurately, without any escalation of the issues. 

The key to neutral reframing is to focus on the core message the employee is trying to convey and to find neutral, non-hostile words to repeat the message.  This technique differs from “restating” because restating often involves incorporating specific key words used by an employee, while neutral reframing involves the challenge of finding new words to demonstrate that the employee’s message was heard.  While this may be a simple technique to understand,  the real challenge is using it in the sweep of the moment, when another person has an outburst and unfiltered, sometimes foul language, is flowing out.  The effect of neutral reframing is to confirm the employee was heard, defuse the intensity of the original message, and subtly model behavior that is civil and moderate, which may, in turn, be reciprocated by the employee. 

Problem-Solving Reframing  Employees, like other people, can get stuck in a rut when they focus exclusively on a problem.  A vicious cycle can result from running the problem through one’s mind over and over and over again.  New perspectives vanish.  Options and solutions fade into the background.  Unfortunately, instead of declaring a communications state of emergency, employees who are stuck in a rut tend to seek support, validation, and reinforcement from friends and associates–and human resources professionals–thereby broadening the circle of discord and vilification. 

Problem-solving reframing, when it is appropriate and appropriately used, is a powerful communication technique that helps an employee change their focus from the past to the future and from negative to positive.  It is useful when an employee is ready to turn a corner and move from past insults, wrongs, and wounds toward future options and solutions.  It helps an employee focus on opportunities, possibilities, and potentials rather than past wrongs and blameworthy conduct. 

The first step in using problem-solving reframing involves making the determination that an employee is ready for it.  At times, people complain about their troubles when they want to vent, let off steam, find a sounding board, look for validation, or simply to commiserate.  They do not, necessarily, want to move into problem-solving.  To determine whether the timing is right, listen for clues about the employee’s state of mind–are they asking for advice and solutions?  Or, is it unclear from the employee’s comments whether they merely want to talk about a problem versus moving into a problem-solving mode.  If that is the case, ask the person a neutral, non-coercive question, such as, “Where do you want to go from here?” or “What’s the next step?”  If they respond, “Oh, I don’t know, I just wanted to talk about it,” they do not want nor will they benefit from problem-solving reframing.  Trying to “fix” a problem for someone who is not ready can create new problems.  However, if the employee expresses an interest in exploring options and solutions, problem-solving reframing can be a powerful tool to help them with that process. 

To help an employee who is ready to move forward and who wants to find solutions, problem-solving reframing requires that the human resources professional help them focus on the future by using four steps–in your response to the employee’s expression of interest in finding a solution:  (1) Focus on the future–not the past, (2) Focus on the positive things the employee wants, rather than the negative things they dislike, (3) Focus on the employee’s interests (career interests, personal interests, specific individual interests) rather than positions (blaming some other person for their problems), and (4) turn the focus from the person being blamed for causing the problem to the employee’s personal interests, needs, and concerns.  This can seem complicated, but all these steps can be collapsed into a single sentence, e.g., when an employee complains that his boss is never around, never available, never in the office,” if the timing is right and the employee wants to move into problem-solving, the human resources professional can ask, “So access to your boss is important to you?”  With that one simple question, all four steps of problem-solving reframing have been compressed into one easy-to-understand but very deliberate (and technical) question.  That one well-framed question re-focuses the employee on the future, on the positive, on their needs, and away from the person they are blaming.  The remainder of the conversation can turn to the subject of inventing options and ideas for solutions that work for the employee rather than deteriorating into a blame session and a legalistic analysis of who is right and who is wrong. 

Re-Directing  Information about workplace issues often arrives in a jumbled, disorganized mass in one-on-one conversations, meetings, large group presentations.  At times, the information is superficial and insufficient to form conclusions and make sound decisions.  The challenge becomes how to bring a level of organization and depth to information without being dictatorial and overly authoritarian by forcing a conversation into certain directions. 

“Re-directing” is a technique where the listener exercises a high degree of control over the direction of a conversation by selecting one topic of importance that has been raised by the employee and asking the employee to provide more information on that topic.  The listener is not changing the subject or using their position to artificially move from one subject to another, because the cardinal rule of re-directing is that the listener always picks a subject the speaker has raised and asks for more detail and depth on that subject.  The speaker (employee) most often feels comfortable providing additional details because they raised the subject in the first place.  For example:  Employee:  My working conditions are terrible.  My office space just doesn’t work for me, there are problems with co-workers, and the projects I’m given just aren’t clear.”   Human Resources Professional (using re-directing), “Starting with the office space you mentioned, can you tell me a little more about that so I understand your situation a little better?”

At the same time the human resources professional is demonstrating they are listening and that they care, they have taken the initiative to focus the conversation on one of the topics raised by the employee, thereby avoiding the information free-for-all that can occur when an employee is feeling exasperated and has reached the boiling point.  At times, there is a tendency to mix and mingle information, frustrations, complaints, and issues; it’s partly the responsibility of the human resources professional to organize the conversation by separating the issues an employee has raised and to go into more depth in order to fully understand the issues. 

Re-directing can be effectively used in one-on-one interactions.  It can also be used very effectively in group interactions, department meetings, and executive sessions.  It is one of the many specialized communication techniques that subtly guides a conversation in a particular direction without antagonizing or strong-arming the speaker by appearing to change subjects. 

Listening Styles   A person’s listening style can have a profound effect on the willingness and way an employee shares information, yet there is a serious dilemma involved in the process of listening.  Some of us may be vaguely aware that we have a certain way of coming across in different situations when we are talking or expressing ourselves.  However, very few of us are aware that we also have distinctive and readily identifiable ways of listening.  Usually, our attention is focused on the speaker when we listen.  We don’t give much attention to ourselves, our facial expressions, our body position, our hand gestures, and other personal mannerisms.  In fact, most of us would have trouble defining our listening style or describing it in much detail.  Unless you are a professional listener, like a therapist, counselor, or mediator, when do you receive training in ways to listen?

To illustrate the impact of listening, consider the following question:  During the past month, have you talked to a person who you considered to be a great listener?  Can you break down their specific characteristics and things they said and did that gave you that impression?  Or is it just one overall impression that you formed?  Have you spoken to a poor listener, one whose skepticism and disagreement with your message shows on their face while you are still talking?  Is it difficult to identify the precise elements that lead to your conclusion that the other person was a good listener?  Conversely, who have you spoken with in the past month who you felt was not a good listener?  Why did they come across that way?  Was it their facial expression, eyes, things they said, things they didn’t say, body movements or lack of body movement?  Were they paying attention or distracted by their own thoughts?  Were they with you in the moment and did they take you seriously?  How could you tell?  Would you have difficulty breaking it down? 

A listening style is a cluster of behaviors, facial expressions, movements and sounds we make while listening.  Without special training, most often we fall into well-formed and deeply ingrained patterns of listening of which we are largely unaware.  If, like most, we listen on auto-pilot, how will it be possible to adopt different listening styles and to be strategic in using listening skills?  Some of the classic styles of listening have been already identified–which one(s) do you use? 

·       Projector (conveying  clear, easy-to-read attitude)

·       Reflector (who mirrors the speaker’s tone, gestures, and movement)

·       Receptive (warm and welcoming, open-minded)

·       Closed (cool,  distant, stoic, hard to read)

·       Skeptical (wrinkling your face and tilting your head when listening to an employee explain the reason why a project is late)

·       Welcoming (smooth face, smiling, encouraging)

·       Impatient (bouncing a foot or knee or ball point pen, tapping fingers, thumbing through a document while someone is talking)

·       Patient (no interruptions, allowing time for speaker to finish completely before speaking)

·       Distracted (watching people walk by the office, looking at computer or telephone)

·       Focused (eliminating incoming telephone calls, close the door, quiet the body)

·       Indifferent (flat affect, stone face, going through the motions)

·       Caring (tone of voice, appropriate body distance and touching)

·       Poker-faced (rigid and controlled, not flinching no matter what is being discussed)

·       Showing your emotions (to an appropriate degree, letting your own feelings show on your face and in your body language and tone of voice)

·       Encouraging (asks follow-up questions, invites additional information, requests details)

·       Discouraging (yes-no answers provided, no follow-up questions asked or entertained)

·       Authoritarian (sits behind desk, uses high conference chair, sits at the end of table, moves papers in a brusque manner)

·       Egalitarian (sits side by side or close to other person, gentle movements of body and papers/objects)

·       Detached (uses very few person pronouns like “I” and “me” and “my”)

·       Connected (talks in terms of “we,” “our”, “us”)

·       Bored (looking for distractions, low energy, acts as if they have heard it all before)

·       Animated (uses hands energetically, strong eye contact, dynamic tone of voice)

·       Focused (quality of eye contact and quiet body language)

·       Unfocused (eyes are unfocused, glazed over, hazy; words are general and non-specific)

·       Selfish (“It’s all about me–anything else is irrelevant and will receive no follow-up questions or comments,” turns conversation to self and personal interests and concerns)

·       Generous (invites sharing of information, actively inquires about others, shares personal information)

·       Interrupting (cuts off sentences, talks over other people)

A skilled listener is aware of their physical orientation (leaning back, forward, or upright), tight/loose/or casual body, hands above, below or on the table, hand movements such as steepling (gesture of confidence with hands touching each other in front of the body with fingers spread), hand positions (fidgeting with fingers, closed fist or fingers, open palm facing up), touching one’s face/nose, hair), covering one’s mouth, tapping your foot or knee, clicking or manipulating your pen, shuffling with papers, eyes that are wide/narrow, focused/unfocused, roaming around/fixed, staring/receptive, soft/hard, looking down or away, squinting, relaxed, facial expression that is positive and upbeat and encouraging (open and smiling at appropriate times) or guarded, judgmental and skeptical (tense, unchanging)  In addition, a skilled listener is mindful of the consistency of their message with their body language/tone/facial expressions/eyes/movements.

Being a professional listener involves one’s awareness of several well-documented aspects of the listening process.  Effective listening involves listening for the facts, emotions, the context of the conversation, sub-context and implicit message, and the intended message.  All professional listens are on guard against the tendency to listen for what we expect or want to hear.  People can think at 400-500 words per minute but they only speak at about 125 words per minute, which leaves a lot of time to tune out or fills in the gaps, if a person chooses to do so.  About 75% of oral communication is ignored, misunderstood, and quickly forgotten.  The Chinese symbol for listening is made up of the symbols for ears, eyes, heart and undivided attention. Listening is not a passive exercise that is designed to placate another person or to create the artificial appearance of sincerity.  It’s critical to say and do things while listening that demonstrate you are giving the speaker your full attention.  Along the way, it’s important to try to manage the internal dialogue that is on-going in your mind (it’s too hot/cold, these chairs are uncomfortable, I’m hungry/full, I’m comfortable/nervous, I have to many things to do after this conversation, my personal problems are overwhelming, I’m not getting along with my spouse right now, my kids are giving me problems that I can’t resolve, how am I going to pay the vet’s bill for the surgery on my dog, I’m out of shape and these clothes don’t look good on me).  The key element of skilled listening is to recognize that we all have a natural listening style, learn to identify the classic listening styles, practice changing your listening style in different situations (e.g., most of us listen to children completely differently than to adults–why, then, don’t we adapt our listening style to meet the needs of adults), and make the choice to use a listening style that is strategic (meaning that the listening style is conducive to a constructive conversation). 

Specialized communication skills can be powerful tools when interacting in the workplace with employees, colleagues, managers, and executives.  Some communication skills involve natural and intuitive elements, while others must be learned and practiced.  New and experienced human resources professionals can enhance their workplace interactions with an awareness of the specialized communication skills and how to use them.  However, mere knowledge of communication skills, unfortunately, isn’t enough to become a stronger communicator.  Communication skills are not self-executing. They can only be useful when there is a mindful and deliberate commitment to practice them and to use them in appropriate circumstances. 



Gregg Relyea

Gregg Relyea, Esq. is a full-time private mediator in San Diego, California.  In addition to teaching mediation at the University of San Diego School of Law and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Mr. Relyea has written a comprehensive negotiation and mediation practice guide, Negotiation, Mediation, and Dispute Resolution--Core Skills… MORE >

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