For purposes of this post, let's assume (so as to preempt trivial answers) we are in a workplace where both urgency (ie. time) and efficiency/quality of work (not wasting materials and producing quality results) is of importance. Naturally, these two concerns are at odds; there is a tradeoff that must be optimized by the apt team.

Suppose I have discovered a critical issue in a project. This issue could translate into an increased cost (perhaps something must be rebuilt, and thus the materials used for it are now wasted) or falling behind schedule (even if the schedule allowed for unforeseen setbacks, a major issue could still mean this reserve is depleted and future setbacks could be dangerous). Obviously, I immediately communicate with my supervisor about this, so that we may come up with a plan to address the crisis.

My question: When I communicate this crisis to my supervisor, should I speak in an urgent tone, or try to be calm?

To my mind, this immediately evokes the idea of astronauts who are trained to remain perfectly calm even in the most precarious, hopeless catastrophe. The reason is obvious, creating panic does not promote clear thinking, and even if one is agitated, this should not be allowed to spread to others.

But real life is (usually) not a space shuttle mission. If I seem excessively stoic about an accident that just cost my boss a lot of money, effort or client goodwill, they may feel that I'm being cavalier and careless with important matters. An urgent tone of voice can also have the psychological benefit of creating a state of alertness in everyone involved.

Is there a rule of thumb for how urgent and troubled one should sound when discussing an urgent, troubling matter?

  • Also, I am referring to situation where the thing at risk is primarily reputation and/or money, not human life. – Superbest Feb 21 '14 at 21:34
  • How likely is this to kill the company? That would be what I'd use as if the issue is something that could financially cripple the company, then sounding an alarm may be a good idea. On the other hand, if the company is making billions of dollars and this issue is only going to cost the company a thousand or two, the big alarm is overkill. – JB King Feb 21 '14 at 21:38

Urgency and calmness don't have to be at odds. Astronauts stay calm, but don't go about it, saying "Well, what have we here? Now look at that, oxygen is dropping. Who wouldda thought?"

It's more along the lines of "Sir, we have a code red emergency, oxygen is dropping." Obviously making this up, but the point is:

Clear language will communicate urgency just as fine, even better, when produced in a calm, clear and brief message.

So do it like this:

  • Calm voice
  • Focus on the issue at hand
  • Use language you reserved for emergencies (like the lingo astronauts use)
  • Make sure you capture the attention of your opposite
  • Keep the description of the issue sort
  • Immediately transition to finding/suggesting solutions (focussing on the cause of the issue will make matters worse in a crisis)


You can't always immediately start suggesting solutions. In that case stop. Shut up. Let the issue echo in your manager's head. They will act on their own.

Adapt the language you use to the level of emergency. Don't say things like "The company's reputation is at stake" when it's just the outage of one instance in a redundant setup.

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  • 5
    +1 I totally agree with your highlighted statement. As a former SGT in the Army deployed to Iraq specializing in radio communications, you can assure we had plenty of urgency issues going across the radio. Messages that we receive that are precise, straight to the point, unambiguous, and brief in an audible and clear tone were our favorite messages. – cYn Feb 21 '14 at 23:30
  • Great astronaut analogy. OP should see the movie Gravity. – NotMe Feb 23 '14 at 16:55

It is always best to remain calm no matter what the situation. If you are excited when you describe the situation to the group they are less likely to accept your assessment of the situation. Excited people have been known to exaggerate and embellish. Even though you may not be doing either the immediate response becomes lets do a reassessment and find the "truth" and tone down the emergency. This leads to wasted time spent doing the assessment you have already done.

Where as if you lay out the facts calmly and with little emotion the people you are presenting to are more likely to take your assessment seriously. If this is an emergency or a situation where a few minutes matter then this could could be critical.

The emotion does not add any benefit in the troubleshooting anyway. Calm collected thinking is more likely to come up with a solution quicker. Excitement and agitation are contagious in a group. So if your excitement infects your coworkers then there are more people who are not thinking clearly.

You can be urgent and calm. It works to your advantage to take that tact.

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My question: When I communicate this crisis to my supervisor, should I speak in an urgent tone, or try to be calm?

All communications involve at least two pieces: the sender and the receiver.

To be effective your urgent communication needs to be sent in such a way that the receiver understands the urgency, without unnecessary delay.

So as often occurs - it depends.

When I talk to my boss, there are words I can use that convey urgency and importance without changing my tone. Every domain has those words.

My rapport with my boss is such that she understands when what I am saying is urgent and important and when it is not.

On the other hand, there are others in my company with whom I do not have this rapport. Saying exactly the same words to those people wouldn't generate the same sense of urgency.

You as the send of information need to ensure that the receiver understands what you are saying, why you are saying it, and what you expect them to do in response. You need to gauge what sort of tone is necessary to effectively deliver that communication - using your knowledge of the recipient.

Most of this happens subconsciously when during our communications. I use tones with my granddaughter that are different than those I use with my son. Yet I don't ponder what tone I should use in either case - it just flows.

As we are less certain how our urgent and important messages will be received, we need to spend a bit more time considering the tone of our delivery.

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  • And some people need to be hit over the head with a 2x4 to understand that what you are saying is urgent. – HLGEM Feb 24 '14 at 14:40

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