The success of any project rests on how well you’re able to communicate with your clients and collaborators. Business communication is a delicate dance.

It’s important to be direct, open and clear with everyone you work with. This takes a certain amount of resolve, since many of us — women especially — are taught to avoid tension and put on a happy face at all times.

However, avoiding tension doesn’t serve anyone. In fact, it usually makes things even more difficult to deal with later. If something isn’t working, the sooner you address it, the better. Even if it’s uncomfortable.

At the same time, when you are reviewing work that someone has spent a lot of time producing, you should be respectful of their effort. Being direct doesn’t mean you should be tactless or insensitive.

Finding the balance between productive feedback and rude dismissal is a pursuit that’s especially close to my heart. I’ve been on the receiving end of all manner of good and terrible feedback, so I’m intimately aware of how subtle verbal cues can make a big difference.

I’m always looking for ways to learn from past mistakes or overcome habits that might hinder clarity. How can I be more succinct over email without being terse? How can I guide phone conversations more smoothly? How can I articulate feedback to collaborators in the most respectful way possible?

Developing good communication skills is a lifelong process. The following suggestions are things that I’m still working on myself. I hope these tips help build positive relationships with everyone who you might encounter in your work day.

Tips for talking to clients or bosses

  • Be direct and confident.
    This means that you should avoid adding qualifiers like “just” to the beginning of questions or statements. For example, instead of opening a follow-up email with I just wanted to check on the status of the X. Try simply staying What is the status of the X? It’s not rude or annoying to ask for something you need to move a project forward. Don’t be afraid to state your needs clearly. If you’re ever worried about sounding too harsh, try speaking your thoughts out loud before contacting the person. I read this advice from the founder of Food 52. Before reading this post, I hadn’t noticed how often I slipped this word into emails. I have a deeply learned tendency to soften every request with multiple layers of qualifications. This is the equivalent of lowering my voice when I’m telling a story at a party. It gives people permission to ignore you.
  • Don’t apologize for things that don’t merit an apology.
    I think we apologize way too often. So you made a typo when you sent your ebook copy? That takes two seconds to fix, so it’s no big deal! Stop saying I’m sorry for not being perfect. Save apologies for situations when they’re actually necessary.
  • Don’t avoid addressing difficult issues.
    If a client expresses a concern, always respond to this immediately. Sometimes a swift email response is enough to resolve the issue. If the tension persists, I always recommend getting on the phone. Even if the problem is your fault, and your client is upset, initiating a real conversation resolves the situation faster. It reminds clients that you’re a real person, and it gives you a chance to explain yourself and propose solutions.
  • Don’t let clients bully you.
    Some people suck. Even when you attempt to resolve tension with emails, phone calls and tangible solutions, annoying clients might continue to punish you with condescension or negative emails. Don’t be afraid to shut this down. Set ground rules for future communications, and if they don’t comply, end the relationship.
  • Keep the back story to yourself.
    All of us will find ourselves in a situation where we can’t quite deliver on something we said we’d do. (I don’t believe people who say this never happens to them.) Maybe we need an extra day to finish a draft, or we have to cancel an appointment. While we shouldn’t make a habit out of this, when it happens, update your client and let them know when you will deliver. You don’t need to explain anything beyond that. Clients care about when they’re going to get what they need, not the complications in your personal life that led to the delay.

Tips for talking to partners, collaborators or people that you’ve hired

  • Be upfront about the real timeline.
    A big pet peeve of mine is fake urgency when it comes to finishing a project. I totally get when something needs to get done quickly. However, the time to communicate deadlines is at the beginning of the project, not the day before something needs to go to print. Also, separate your personal desire to get something off your plate with a real deadline. Imposing your pace on other people’s workflow creates unnecessary tension.
  • One check-in email or reminder is usually enough.
    Any more than that, and you will annoy the people you’re working with. Whatever you do, don’t use all caps or words like “urgent” and “time sensitive” in your subject lines. Yelling a request for a response is a big turn off. Assume that people will get back to you as soon as they can. If something is in fact time sensitive, communicate the specific time when you need a response and leave it at that.
  • Avoid judgment or blame when requesting changes.
    Perhaps you sent a list of changes to be implemented and your partner missed a few things. Simply send the change request again. You don’t need to remind the person that you already sent it, because that comes across as self-righteous. I prefer communicating on the basis that we all make little mistakes from time to time, so we shouldn’t make others (or ourselves) feel bad about that.

Tips for commenting on creative work

  • Don’t apologize or feel bad about not liking something.
    Don’t worry, we’re not going to hate you or be crushed if you give respectful feedback on how something can be improved. When you add layers of guilt to your feedback, it makes the exchange awkward for everyone. Creative professionals have thick skin, and we generally welcome suggestions on how to make things better.
  • Avoid saying that you don’t like something without explanation.
    Sometimes you’ll see something that you just don’t like. It might be hard to pinpoint what exactly you don’t like. Vague comments like, it’s just not me, or that wasn’t successful don’t help move the project forward. Try to find at least one concrete thing to say. This will help trigger a productive discussion about what is and isn’t working.
  • Be specific, but don’t step in to finish the job.
    Sometimes people get really detailed in the feedback and send mockups or audio notes with super specific notes. I understand wanting to be in control of the final result, but when you start finishing the job yourself, it communicates a lack of trust. This is extremely demotivating. I think, why did they hire me in the first place? Did they simply need a set of hands? Suggest starting points for revisions, but let them do the rest. Trust from clients inspires me to do my best work. Micromanaging makes me check out.

I hope these tips will be helpful to you as you navigate communicating in your business relationships (and in life). I’m curious what communication strategies you find helpful. Share your tips – or communication pet peeves, in the comments below!


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