For five years (2003-2008) Jill McGillen wrote a weekly work advice column for several Northern California newspapers. Many of those questions and answers on communication are included below. Feel free to browse the Q&A archives below.

If you want to read more of Jill’s work advice, she is now writing columns for

Lengthy emails generating complaints
Tips on active listening
New staff member making mistakes
Trouble with motivation and attitude
Boss is constantly criticizing

Dear Jill,

My boss told me he has been getting complaints about my lengthy e-mails. The problem is that I need to communicate a lot of information in a weekly e-mail. If I make the e-mails briefer I will have to leave out critical information that certain people need. Do you have any suggestions? – R

Dear R,

For many, the volume of e-mail has become overwhelming. I have heard it referred to as e-mail jail-spending so much time reading e-mails that there is little time for essential work. Some thoughts:

  1. Choose your distribution list carefully. Find out and copy only those that need (and want) to be copied.
  2. Use short paragraphs and separate ideas with bullets.
  3. Be concise. If certain people need more information send them a more comprehensive e-mail.
  4. This may take more time for you, but is more efficient for the entire group.
  5. If your e-mail requires action, indicate that in the first sentence or subject line.
  6. Identify and separate background information. Let your readers decide whether they need this additional information.

Remember that correspondence is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.

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Dear Jill,

My boss recently gave me my annual performance evaluation. His constructive feedback was that I need to improve my “active listening” skills. Do you have any recommendations? – S

Dear S,

Active listening means listening with the intent of fully understanding what the speaker is trying to communicate. Most people are so busy thinking about how they want to respond they miss the opportunity to understand the message and the speaker.
Strategies to practice active listening:

  • Listen for subtle cues such as tone of voice, choice of words and emotional quality in the voice.
  • Listen for both the verbal and non-verbal message. Beyond just listening, observe facial expression, gestures and eye contact.
  • Listen with an open mind. What we think is apparent by our facial expression. If you disagree, your expression may dissuade the speaker from fuller explanations for fear of being judged.
  • Nod or indicate other acknowledgment when appropriate. Let your speaker know that you comprehend and are listening to him/her.
  • If you do not understand what is being said, ask the speaker to give more detail. Use clarifying questions such as “what I heard you say is . . .is that right?”

Active listening is a way to show others that you value their thoughts and opinions. It builds good will and creates a likelihood that they in turn will listen more closely to you. Besides all those benefits…you will increase your knowledge!

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Dear Jill,

One of my new staff members is making a lot of mistakes. And he gets defensive every time I let him know what he did wrong. I need to let him know when he makes mistakes so that he doesn’t keep doing the same thing. I am not good at giving feedback. He told me that I make him very nervous. His trial period of 3 months is almost up and I am on the fence about whether to keep him. I know he is trying hard. He has great credentials and experience. And his former employers gave him terrific references. I thought maybe I could try a new approach to improve the situation before I make up my mind. Any thoughts? – M

Dear M,

It may be that you are unintentionally contributing to his difficulty adapting to the job. Try some new approaches for better results: Begin any feedback with “I think” not “You didn’t…” This produces better results. “You” statements are heard as blame and criticism. “You” statements may also communicate a lack of respect and cause defensive behavior.
Some guidelines for giving constructive feedback:

  1. Give immediately after the occurrence;
  2. Give it in a private setting;
  3. Be very specific. Stay away from generalizations:
    “What you did was incomplete”. A better way: “The report needs to include xyz because of the following reasons…”
  4. As much as possible try to provide examples or detailed explanations of what the final product should look like;
  5. Once you have addressed a mistake, move on. Do not bring it up again unless it reoccurs;
  6. Stick to evaluating the problem, not the person;
  7. Provide concrete recommendations of how to fix the problem.

Give your employee positive reinforcement on what he is doing well. This is important and will help reduce his nervousness. Generally, work performance is consistent. If he was successful elsewhere, the chances are good he can be successful in this new position.

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Dear Jill,

I am having trouble with an employee’s motivation and attitude. She sets a bad example for my team. I have tried several different ways to develop her motivation and encourage a better attitude – with no success. I am at the point of discussing a transfer with her. I am open to try anything at this point. Do you have any suggestions? – L

Dear L,

Please reconsider a transfer as the solution. This is not solving a problem; it is relocating it. Would you like it if another supervisor transferred a problem person to you?

Regarding your employee’s attitude: you really cannot change attitude. Attitude is something that is personal to an individual. What you can address is behavior. Behavior affects others and task performance and is therefore under your sphere of control. Does her behavior impact others and her work performance? Those are the things that need to be addressed. Are her tasks and your expectations of how to perform such tasks clear? How does she not meet the expectation and how can you create a development plan to facilitate that result? Has the training been sufficient for her to succeed?

As to motivation, assess the following list of performance motivators and answer the questions to ensure that performance motivators are in place:

  • Goals: Are the goals clear and challenging?
  • Standards: Are the standards realistic and documented?
  • Feedback: Are you delivering appropriate and timely feedback?
  • Competence: Is additional training needed?
  • Opportunity: Does she understand what would happen if she were to improve/not improve?
  • Compensation: Is this amount competitive and adequate for the job?
  • Environment: How can you create an environment (in general) where employees thrive and are motivated?

What motivates this employee? Not all employees are motivated by the same factors.

Like attitude, you cannot create motivation. You can only identify what conditions make motivation surface. Are these conditions within your control?

Finally, I always recommend Human Resource (HR) involvement with decisions related to employee performance issues. After analyzing above, try these measures:

  1. Create a development plan;
  2. Set expectations and timelines;
  3. Identify motivation needs;
  4. Document your results. If you still have an employee who is not performing, then HR should help determine next steps.

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Dear Jill,

My boss constantly criticizes me. It seems I can do nothing right. I get so angry that I become silent when this happens. Otherwise I am afraid I will lose my temper. My friends tell me to ignore what he says and just keep my cool. Do you have ideas on how to handle his constant criticism? – R

Dear R,

First, I would not recommend ignoring your boss. Please consider the following idea: His criticism is useful to you. How? Anyone doing a job requires input about his or her work in order to improve. It may be that some or even most of his criticism is unwarranted. But there is some part that will help you do your job better. Next time he criticizes you, instead of remaining quiet, try this:

  • Thank him for taking the time to give you feedback
  • Ask him to fully explain his criticism
  • Explore the specifics; understand the problem
  • Ask him for suggestions on how he would like it done next time
  • Ask him what he liked about what you did so you can continue doing that

My experience tells me that your boss will be less critical when he sees that you are open to his suggestions and trying your best.

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