Working in strata is a tough gig. As a strata manager and business owner said to me last week: clients never call to say “everything’s great!”

Every day, you’re dealing with complaints, emergencies and requests for help. Sometimes you know the answer, sometimes you don’t. And sometimes the person on the other end of the phone or email doesn’t want to hear the answer.

How do you deliver bad news, or say ‘no’, in a way that keeps your client calm, rational and above all, happy with your service?

Keeping the focus on the positive goes a long way. Being positive comes more naturally to some than others, but I believe it is a powerful skill that can be learned.

Your clients pay you (or your employer) to provide a service to them. Generally it’s a service that makes their lives easier. When they call you with a problem, they want you to solve it. If you can solve it, great. Tell them what your understanding of the problem is, what steps you recommend be taken, who is going to take those steps (eg: you, them, a third party) and when.

If you can’t solve your client’s problem – either, not immediately or not at all – explain why, remembering to stay positive. I try to practise the “positive no”. To me, this means always starting a sentence with a positive or supportive statement. For example: “I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for you. No wonder you are so frustrated”, or “I can tell that you really have a lot of knowledge on that subject, I appreciate you sharing that with me.”

That’s the “positive”.

Then for the “no”: “the reason you have received that notice is because it’s a legal requirement that you have a by-law in place before you do that kind of work. Unfortunately you will have to comply with that notice, or you could face legal proceedings”.

Then it’s back to the positive: “I understand that is going to set your construction schedule back and that’s really frustrating for you. I suggest you do the following…” (it might be obtain legal advice, put their concerns in writing, attend the next meeting, etc).

By using this method of communicating, you are acknowledging how the other person is feeling, which can diffuse an otherwise very tense situation. It’s difficult for someone to argue in the face of sympathy and understanding (though some will certainly try!) and it usually catches the recipient off guard. However, even though you are being sympathetic and understanding, you’re not compromising your position: you are clear on the facts and the requirements that need to be met to fix this situation. You are also setting out the path forward, which the other person may not otherwise be able to see through their fog of anger. You have handed control back to them and it is for them to then decide what they want to do next to help themselves. You have discharged your obligation.

The more you practise this style of communication, the easier it will come to you without effort (there is also lots of literature on the ‘positive no’ for those interested in gaining more knowledge about this area). Keeping the focus on the positive will see you gain a reputation amongst your clients and colleagues for calm, considered, accurate and empathetic advice, that actually solves problems. After all, that’s why you’re there.  

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