How to Communicate Negative Stuff in a Positive Way

One of my clients reached out to me recently because he is unhappy with his new job. He hasn’t yet developed a strong relationship with his boss and doesn’t want to come across as whiny. He is struggling with how to have the conversation, especially since he isn’t ready to throw in the towel.  Keeping a positive tone in a difficult, high-stakes conversation like this one is a key leadership skill. In my work with this client, we talked through several strategies that can make a big difference when you're in a situation like his.  

Use Positive Language  

When my client and I first talked about his unhappiness with his new job, this is what he told me:

  • “This role isn’t what I was expecting. My skills are underutilized, and I’m bored and frustrated.”

  • “I’m not sure where this experience is really going to lead me or my career.”

  • “I want a better relationship with my boss, but he is so different from other bosses I have had. My last boss was so supportive. I’m not sure where I stand with this one.”

Sharing this information with his boss using words like the ones he used with me seemed risky, given the situation. After all, this is a conversation that will set the tone for my client's relationship with his boss. The choices he makes about how to handle the conversation will have a ripple effect throughout his time at this company.   That's why I gave my client this strategy: Even if you’re feeling negative, share it in a more positive way. The easiest way to do this is by first clarifying your underlying intent. In other words, stop and ask yourself what this is really about for you.   Here’s how my client used his intent to communicate the situation to his boss:

  • "I value my relationship with you and the company, so I want to be transparent about what is going on for me."

  • "I want to more fully utilize my skills to support the business and have a bigger impact. Here’s where I see an opportunity. …"

  • "I am committed to the company and want to better understand the career path."

Can you see how those words would land very differently with his boss than how he originally described the situation to me?  

Focus on How You Want to Show Up  

The second way to find the right words is by focusing on how you want to show up vs. how you don't want to show up. For example, if you want to come across as proactive and positive vs. whiny and negative, what words, tone and body language would convey that? Practice speaking out loud and in front of a mirror so you can make sure these three things are in sync.  

Work on the Relationship  

Finally, consider one of these options to develop a stronger relationship with your boss over time:

  • Pay attention to what he cares about and how he communicates. This helps you position things more effectively.

  • Ask others whom you trust, and who know him well, how to best engage him.

  • Get to know him as a person.

  • Tell him how to best work with you. Many leaders have a hard time figuring this out on their own, so make it easy for them. For example, tell him what management style works well for you (hands on or hands off) and the most effective communication approach (e.g., direct, face-to-face, etc.) and ask what works best for him. This will allow the two of you to co-design your working relationship.

  • If he doesn't give feedback, offer your own self-assessment and ask him what he thinks.

I’ve shared a lot of different ideas here. Which one resonates most with you? I challenge you to pick a strategy and get started Let me know how it goes!

For more resources to help you get going, check out our Leadership EDGE SeriesSM booklet on Communicating with Impact or go even deeper with the WOW! WomenOn the Way to Peak Performance Program℠.