How to deal with simmering tensions

John spent the good part of an hour with me complaining about the lack of support from the marketing department. His project was a strategic initiative of national importance. If it flopped, it would be devastating for the company’s reputation. He needed marketing’s help desperately. His frustration was palpable.

“What have you done to address it so far?”

“Everything. I’ve emailed asking them nicely, I’ve tried sending them reminders, I’ve tried asking my supervisor to prod them along, but nothing is happening there. No one is backing this project and I’m worried we’re all going to have egg on our face.”

“Have you actually gone down to the marketing department and sat down with them face to face?”

“I don’t have time for that.”

*…Raises eyebrows…* 

John’s face flushed red. “I guess I could do that. It’s worth a shot.”

A week later I asked John how the project was progressing.

“Great! Marketing is on board now, my boss has sent out a memo backing the project’s importance, and I’ve got a team of helpers.”

“What happened?”

“I went and spoke to the marketing guys. It turns out they are completely understaffed with George on medical leave.  They are working on four other projects. I sat down with my boss and explained the consequences from my point of view and was very specific about what I thought she could do to help. She agreed and added in a few suggestions of her own.”


I see these kinds of simmering tensions a lot in the organisations I work with. People send out email broadcasts expecting others to jump to attention. When responses are weak or slow, the frustration creeps in and the talk turns sour.


Sour Talk is the worst kind of expressed frustration. It is hurtful, dark, and deceitful. It is sinister and corrosive in teams as the sour talker often seeks to build a possy of dissenters.

Back Talk is a more visible version. Back talkers often use sarcasm and barbed comments to lash out at others. Back talkers cause unease as this kind of communication erodes the sense of safety in the team.

Sweet Talk is insidious. Sweet talkers flatter, manipulate, and cajole others to their point of view. Their approach is sickly sweet and coats the team dynamics with a bitter after-taste of insincerity.

Real Talk is the only healthy approach to conversations that matter. It is honest, strong, and candid. Real talkers master constructive feedback and take a collaborative approach to solving issues. They are open to other perspectives and seek understanding before jumping to judgement.

Three key skills are lacking for those in your team who default to Sour, Back, or Sweet Talk:

1.    Emotional Mastery
2.    Functional Feedback
3.    Collaborative Conversation Skills

You can start to address simmering tensions by sitting down face to face, with open positive intentions, and asking, “How are you, really?”

What are your strategies for dealing with simmering tensions? What has worked? What has backfired? Why? 

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