Four Ways to Eliminate Toxic Communication
by Brady Wilson

Imagine an environment where people:

  • Come to you directly when you inadvertently offend them, instead of complaining about you behind your back;
  • Tell you if there is a problem instead of acting annoyed;
  • Don’t throw verbal darts at each other in meetings;
  • Refrain from using e-mail as a weapon or a shield.

Toxic Communication is a threat to any work environment, which can be disguised in four ways:

  1. Indirect Communication is the use of non-verbal messages, disapproving attitudes, critical humour or public teasing to send a veiled message to someone, instead of having a direct, face-to-face conversation with them. It takes far less courage to arrive at a meeting 20 minutes late than to tell the person who scheduled it that you prefer afternoon meetings.

  2. Character Assassination is dishonouring someone when they are not there to speak for themselves by assigning malice to their actions, words or motives. It's simple to rip apart someone with cutting words when only their reputation is in front of you.

  3. Public Re-dressing is uncovering someone’s private issue in a public forum because it’s uncomfortable for you to go face-to-face with them. This could be reprimanding a person in front of their peers or simply divulging a piece of confidential information.

  4. E-stabbing is the distribution of a scathing email and CC’ing those you wish to leak juicy information to. This can also happen when you request someone’s help by email, and then CC your supervisor so the person is forced to comply.

Toxic communication is an organizational cancer that kills trust, respect, understanding, collaboration and job satisfaction. However, you can eliminate it.

Four Ways to be Toxin-Free

  1. Default to direct communication and avoid sending messages that leave ambiguity in the mind of the receiver. Practice "XYZ communication.” When you do X, it makes me feel Y. Could I ask you to do Z instead?

  2. Stop character assassinations. Avoid becoming a character assassin by using this simple rule: When you speak about someone to others, picture them beside you and only say the things you would say if they were present. If you are a victim of a character assassination, invest in a direct, face-to-face conversations with the person who started the toxic message and those infected by the message. If you witness a character assassination, ask the assassin one simple question – “Have you had this conversation with her yet? If you haven’t, I don’t think I better know about this before she does.” This is hard to do, but it offers the person a great choice-point. You also make it clear that you refuse to be an accomplice to future character assassinations.

  3. Interrupt public re-dressings. If you are a manager, don’t discipline people in front of their peers unless the issue absolutely must be addressed publicly, in the moment, to avert a greater disaster. If you are someone who is the at the receiving end, or if you are a bystander, politely but assertively suggest that, “Maybe we should take a five minute break now.” This will give the person a choice to get back in line emotionally and regain their reasoning.

  4. Go face-to-face with e-stabbers. Help them understand the implications of using technology as a fault-broadcaster, a power-lever or a butt-covering device. One or two face-to-face conversations with a person like that will provide a healthy disincentive for future e-stabbing incidents.

Test your ability to avoid Toxic Communication:

Select an answer for each situation:

1. When you disapprove of someone’s attitude or behaviour, do you
a. Use critical humour to try to alert them to your feelings?
b. Publicly tease them in a way that indirectly informs them of your dissatisfaction?
c. Use silence or ignore them so they know you’re displeased?
d. Have a direct, face-to-face conversation to address the issue and learn about their motives?

2. When someone who is not present is being dishonoured, do you
a. Listen quietly without giving input?
b. Add to the character assassinations?
c. Spread the gossip about that person?
d. Encourage face-to-face conversation between the speaker and the victim?

3. If you’re a manager who needs to correct an employee, do you
a. Discipline the person in front of other employees?
b. Talk about the issue with others, hoping the message will get to the person?
c. Withhold support or give the person tougher tasks to show your disapproval?
d. Have a private conversation to explore the issue and share your concern?

4. Do you find yourself
a. CC’ing emails in order to “leak” information about an issue or employee?
b. Requesting someone’s assistance and CC’ing emails to the supervisor to force the person to comply?
c. Using email to cover your tracks?
d. Defaulting to direct conversation in order to achieve gut-level understanding?

Did you select the “d” in each situation? If so, you are contributing to a better work environment where people will trust and respect you more, and offer you more of their goodwill.

Brady Wilson is co-founder of Juice Inc. a strategic communications training company that helps leaders create a culture where it’s easier to get results and it feels good to work. For more information about Juice Inc., visit To contact Brady, email him at .

Many more articles in Communications in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Brady Wilson. All rights reserved.

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