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The Uncertainty of Taxes—Positively Reframing a Difficult Workplace Communication

Conflict Remedy Blog by Lorraine Segal

A wonderful benefit of learning conflict resolution skills is using them to positively reframe my own challenging communications. In difficult interactions, we often have a choice between accusing and getting information, between being self righteous or solving the problem. We generally get much more of what we want if we can choose the gentler path. But how do we do that when we feel wronged? Awareness, intention, and practice can help. I had an experience recently around paychecks and taxes which demonstrates these choices, and my reward for taking the high road.

The problem:

One of the places where I occasionally teach conflict resolution classes takes payroll taxes out of my paycheck rather than treating me as an independent contractor. I submitted several W4 forms, each requesting that a substantial percentage of the money I earned be taken out for taxes, which helps me with business tax liability. Twice, only $2.86 was taken out for federal tax and nothing for the state.

After navigating a bureaucratic maze, I was finally able to speak directly to the right bookkeeper. She assured me she would take care of the problem if I submitted another W4, which I promptly did.

A few months later when I opened my third paycheck—they had once again only taken out $2.86 in taxes.

My first “hit the roof” response.

I’m glad no one was around to hear me cursing and yelling. They may be good for venting, but are not useful for change. I realized my negative judgments and assumptions about the situation weren’t going to help at all. I took several deep breaths, put on my conflict resolution specialist persona, and called the bookkeeper. I knew that neither my words or tone could have even a hint of blame if I wanted a sane and productive interaction.

How I responded that was more helpful:

I calmly reminded her who I was and then stated the facts with no judgment or interpretation. ”I got my paycheck, and only $2.86 was taken out in taxes. I didn’t understand why, because I filled out a W4 as per your instructions, asking for much more to be taken out.”

“I got your W4 and inputted it,” she said quickly and defensively.”

“Thank you so much for doing that.” I said warmly.” But there is still a problem, because the taxes weren’t taken out.”

She kept defending herself until she saw I wasn’t blaming her.

She was expecting me to attack or criticize her so she kept defending herself, which could have moved the conversation to the negative. I did not respond to her negative tone, but calmly persisted.

“I really appreciate what you did. It seems that we both did our parts but somehow there was still a glitch. Maybe together we can figure out what didn’t happen or where the problem is.”

When she saw I wasn’t blaming her, she was able research what had gone wrong, and to figure out the lead time for submitting W4s was far longer than we realized. Consequently, we hadn’t submitted the W4 in time. We parted cordially.

So what were the benefits for me of staying calm with her?

  • We became problem solving partners rather than adversaries and together figured out what had to be done differently.
  • She’ll be happy to talk to me again if we need to work together and won’t want to avoid me.
  • I got the information I needed to handle the W4 differently next time. And I’m not angry at her or the bureaucracy.
  • I won’t be terribly upset if my next pay check only has $2.68 taken out; I’ll know I just missed the deadline again.

My initial reaction was very human, but I am glad I got through it alone and not on the phone with her. I’m also pleased I demonstrated the very skills I coach my clients to use to help transform conflict into positive communication!


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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