Cruel Communications

Are you giving a gift or sending suffering?

Belinda Tobin
13 min readMay 23


This article highlights hypocrisy occurring in the hallowed halls of our organisations and each corner of our offices. While we decry bullying as a major form of incompetence, a more insidious issue is being ignored and left to create sneaky suffering across all levels of an organisation. This is communication done without consciousness or care. It is the scourge of cruel communications. And I will bet my last dollar that every person reading this article has experienced the calamitous consequences.

The definition of cruel

First, let’s break down what I mean by cruel. Here are the two definitions that apply to our corporate communications.

Adjective: causing pain or suffering

Verb: to spoil or ruin (for example, an opportunity or chance of success).

In describing cruelty, we must acknowledge that while some are intentional (and even enjoyed by some sadistic staff members), it is likely that most cruel behaviours we experience in our corporate lives are unconscious. Busyness blinds us to the needs of others and the consequences of our actions. When teamed with fear, our behaviours become selfish pursuits for some form of security. Cruelty is less about the person it is directed towards and more about the inner world of the person conferring it.

The definition of communications

And what do I mean by communications? The definition used here is:

The imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium.

I would add to this definition that the information being conveyed is purposeful. Why do we bother communicating with someone else? It is always for a reason. It could be to have another person know more about us or to learn more about another person, both of which have the purpose of building a sense of admiration, friendship or, more perniciously, to gain a sense of power. Or, as is more likely the case in corporate communications, we want to get another person to do something for us. We need someone to provide us with information, complete a task, follow a policy or fill out a survey. We need the person we are communicating with to take action.

Action is based on emotion

As shown in the following Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) Model, all human behaviour is prompted by emotions. People only do something if they are compelled by unhelpful emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, pride, and shame or by helpful emotional states such as courage, excitement, love or joy.

Therefore, the integral purpose of communication is to stir emotions. And it is not difficult to imagine that, following the natural law of Cause and Effect, or the techy rule of Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO), the emotions stirred by communications directly influence the quality of the action taken, both now and into the future. This is because communication is a gift, and the quality of the gift we receive indicates the extent to which the sender cares about us and to which we can trust them.

Communication is a gift

I like to use the metaphor of communications as a gift because it does indicate the precious nature of communications, which is often lost in the panic to ‘get something out’ or ‘to get it off my desk’[1]. Following this analogy, communication is a set of ideas wrapped in words and physical gestures and given from one person to another. This analogy is useful, as the quality of the gift can be impacted at all three points along the present-giving process:

  • The ideas. Without a clear idea of the purpose of the communication, and the information the recipient would value, the gift is unlikely to be fit-for-purpose or appreciated. It is like the difference between taking time to consider what the recipient truly needs and wants versus just grabbing the first gift card you can find. Imagine coming to work one day to find a unique pen holder in your favourite colours and engraved with your initials on your desk. Now compare that with how you would feel if you came in and found a $10 voucher with a note saying, “Dear staff member, please use this to buy yourself a pen holder.” Sure, the first scenario takes some extra time and effort. Still, it is also likely to be much more appreciated and stir positive emotions that will resonate through future interactions.
  • The wrapping — the words chosen directly affects the emotions and experience of those receiving the gift. The words chosen for wrapping can delight and motivate or scare and shut down the recipient. Which would make you more likely to engage with a gift — one wrapped with colour and care or one left in the brown paper bag it was put in when purchased? Which one would make you think the person giving it to you actually cared about you? And which one would make you want to do something nice for them in return?
  • The giving. Where and how the communication is provided also contributes to the quality of the gift. Hurling a present at someone from across the room while shouting “catch” is unlikely to be appreciated and will, more often than not, make the other person feel stupid when they are too slow to grab it. Likewise, dumping a gift on someone’s chair without context will only lead to confusion and more questions, such as, “Is this for me?” or “What am I meant to do with this?”

Examples of cruel communications

Hopefully, this analogy makes it easier to understand how communications can be unconsciously cruel. We have all been in a situation where we have had to buy a gift for someone and have weighed up the pros and cons of investing effort to make it special. Sometimes there is not enough time to create something personal, but that does not mean it cannot be wrapped with warmth and given generously. It is the same for our daily communications. We don’t have the luxury of always crafting carefully considered pieces of prose, but as with any gift, it is the thought that counts!

Here are a few examples of communications I have come across where it is obvious there needed to be more thought put into the message.

After spending months developing the new strategic plan, it was sent to the CEO for approval. The email that came back contained one line, being:

“I like the use of colour”.

An ad-hoc email from the Manager to a team member stated:

“The Director has requested we provide her with a corporate calendar. Can I get a draft to me this afternoon?”

And another:

“Can you please prepare a presentation for me on strategic risks for the Executive Leadership Team?”

On the surface, none of these messages are particularly painful. There is no sarcasm, sniping or name-calling. However, they do create suffering in the following ways.

They do not invest in the idea. Each one ignores any consideration of what the person receiving the communication may need to do their job and to feel good about it. Feedback on the colours in the strategic plan does not help the person know whether they are on the right track with an incredibly important initiative. It also does not acknowledge the intellectual investment made by the person in producing this plan. The result is that instead of being buoyed by this feedback, the gift feels more like a kick in the teeth.

Similarly, the requests to develop a corporate calendar or executive presentation do not provide any context to help the receiver be confident in their actions. They haven’t been provided with the knowledge about why this work is important, what problem it is solving, or how it will be used. This is all imperative data for people to feel they are taking informed action. While initiative and problem-solving are credible traits to encourage, it is just downright cruel not to provide people with the basic information they need to do their job well. Making people guess what is needed, more often than not, wastes their precious time and energy, and that can be viewed as a pitiless punishment. Moreover, it reinforces a culture of fear, mistrust and dehumanisation, as it signals that the people at the top believe their time is more precious than those below.

The wrapping on each of these ‘gifts’ also leaves much to be desired. The words are stale and unfriendly, which could be considered perfect corporate communications! The problem is they don’t stir any emotion except a sense of boredom and burden — hardly the fuel for a fun time at work. The lack of personalisation and passion about the work makes the reader feel like another cog in the machine, churning out the same old crap. If a sense of meaning is integral to mental health, then it could be argued that these communications are inhumane and harmful.

If the gift was pleasant and the wrapping pretty, we could forgive it turning up via courier without explanation. However, these messages are like piles of poo plonked on your front step. Surprise! It could be seen as cowardice to place these requests solely in electronic form. Without personal interaction, the recipient cannot ask difficult questions, which makes the sender’s life a lot easier, especially if they don’t know the answers or are too lazy or fearful of seeking clarification back up the chain. The sender can hide behind the veil of email and tick this job off their list. The channel chosen is convenient for the sender of the gift but is disrespectful to the person who is now expected to clean up the mess.

Some of you may be reading these examples and thinking I have gone too far in my critique of corporate communications. I can imagine some consider me ‘too sensitive’ and that these communications should not be taken personally. We are all time-poor, and surely people understand that jobs need to get done without a fuss. I do acknowledge this argument. However, I would remind those of this persuasion that they are dealing with people. The same people you state in your strategic plans or annual reports are your greatest strength or your most highly prized possession. People who are driven by emotion. Ignoring the fact that whom you are communicating with will be driven by how you make them feel is a sign of a significant lack of intelligence. Moreover, by overlooking the ability that each of us has to create a present (rather than punishment), we are neglecting our greatest power — to create an organisation founded on love, not fear.

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” ~ Maya Angelou

The alternative — compassionate communications

The dictionary definition of compassion is:

To feel or show sympathy or concern for others.

In Buddhism, though, the concept of compassion is taken further to be:

Action taken to reduce suffering.

I like the latter definition better, as it indicates compassion is not just a felt sense but requires action to make it a reality. In the case of communications, replacing cruel (unconsciously or otherwise) with compassionate communications is then about:

  • Considering the purpose of the communication — the present itself. What idea needs to be conveyed, why is it important, and what action are you asking the recipient to take on your behalf? How can you turn this amorphous clump into something clear? And how can you shape this communication to match the needs and wants of the person receiving it? If you can’t figure this out alone, it might be time to consult before communicating. If you need to know what gift is required, then it is time to seek some guidance!
  • Wrapping it well. While delegating gift wrapping is always permissible, the personal touch will sometimes deliver the perfect outcome. Carefully choose the words that convey the required emotion and that will spur the quality of action you seek. Not too much flair to be seen as facetious, but not too little to suggest a complete lack of concern.
  • Handling it with care. Selecting the most appropriate channel for the message and the staff member receiving it. You may have a consistent communication method, but you must consider that special communications require special treatment. If every piece of communication is treated as mundane, then every communication will become mundane, and your special messages will get missed.

I like the latter definition better, as it indicates compassion is not just a felt sense but requires action to make it a reality. In the case of communications, replacing cruel (unconsciously or otherwise) with compassionate communications is then about:

  • Why this information or task is important
  • What must be known or done
  • When and where will things happen
  • How things must be done
  • Who is involved and can be contacted for help.

More specifically, compassionate communication is about removing the unnerving emotion of uncertainty and the fear of failure and replacing these with the calm that comes from clarity and confidence. This does not require a tirade or a tome. It can be as simple as providing the recipient with an understanding of the following:

“The Director has requested we provide her with a corporate calendar. Can I get a draft to me this afternoon?”

Let’s work through an example from before. Instead of the cruel version, what if we went with:

Good morning!

We have had a left-field request come in from the Director’s office. The Director is concerned that our planning and performance activities are not feeding into one another and lack coordination with other executive activities. She would like to see how what we do fits together with the ELT program over a financial year. [WHY] To do this, she has asked for a ‘corporate calendar’ to be developed.

Please start documenting the key planning and performance activities that occur over the financial year and then play around with how we can display them in a visual calendar format, showing the overlaps in timings and interactions between tasks. [WHAT and HOW]

The Director has asked for a copy by the end of the week, so I would appreciate your initial ideas by midday Wednesday. I am out at workshops until then, but I will book some time to catch up Wednesday afternoon to check in with any questions or concerns you may have. [WHEN]

In the meantime, if you need more information, the best contact is Jenny — the Director’s PA. She knows more about what the Director is looking for. I have checked with her that you are fine to contact her directly, so please feel free to reach out and ask any questions you might have. [WHO]

Thanks so much for your help — it is greatly appreciated. Have a great morning. With kindest regards,

Yes, this revised version took a few more minutes, but can you feel the difference? Which one would you prefer in your inbox on a Monday afternoon?

Both selfless and selfish

Ultimately, compassionate communication about balancing:

Selflessness. It is about taking a moment to think about what you want AND what the other person needs to do their job well. Taking the time to think through the communication before and during it is composed, and then taking the action that will reduce the suffering the recipient will have to go through at the other end, either in guesswork or through potentially getting it wrong and having to do rework.

Selfishness. It is about ‘wise selfishness’ — considering what help and support others need to help you. Investing the effort to provide the recipient with the information and emotion to deliver the best outcome for all. Because if it is fear, disrespect and mediocrity you put out, then it is fear, disrespect and mediocrity you will get in return.

From cruelty to compassion

There are two prerequisites to shifting the dial from cruelty to compassion and achieving the full potential that the gifts of communication can bring. These are:

  1. Consciousness
  2. Compassion


For most people, it is ignorance that drives their communication. They are unaware of the subliminal hostility or heartlessness that their careless communique transmits. They are too busy thinking about ‘what’ needs to get done to consider the ‘who’ or ‘how’ behind each task. Unconscious cruelty is the result. To embed compassion takes consciousness — an awareness of the importance and potential of communication and our power to deliver upon it.

Without being conscious of our communication beliefs and behaviours, we become powerless reactionaries, unaware of the pivotal moment of choice and the wide range of alternative responses. We also create role models that proliferate this powerless and continue to condone cruelty. With consciousness, we can choose respectful responses and create cultures based on compassion.

“Awareness is the greatest agent of change.” ~ Eckhardt Tolle


It is said that with awareness comes responsibility. And now you are better informed about the nature of cruel communications; you have a charge to understand your own. However, understanding what you believe about your people, what you expect from them, and how this plays out in your communications is enlightening, although relatively easy. Taking action to bring more compassion into your communication requires courage. Courage may be needed to tackle fears about being seen as either “soft” or “micromanaging”. Alternatively, it is needed to deal with the vulnerability of change, trying and failing at new communication techniques.

And while this article has largely focused on the sender of the communication, the receiver also needs to be brave to challenge and critique the current state and demonstrate alternative communication methods. Sometimes people just need to see what compassionate communication looks like to know just how cruel theirs has been.

In short, compassionate communication will not work without consciousness and courage — to acknowledge how you currently work, try a new approach, invest in the experiment, and allow yourself to transform with each new experience.

1. [1] This is a modified version of the Conduit metaphor from Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor — A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor And Thought (pp. 284–324). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Originally published at



Belinda Tobin

Author. Series Executive Producer of the Future Sex Love Art Projekt. Founder of The 3rd-Edge and The Addiction Healing Pathway.