The following scenario recently happened to a good friend. How would you have responded?

My good friend Josh is a very successful banker working for one of the largest banks in the country. He worked his way up the corporate ladder and now mentors other bankers often twice his age. For his position in the company, he is one of their top earners in terms of gross loan sales. Josh makes his company and his clients a lot of money.

Josh recently received an “urgent” email from an indirect superior named Carl. Carl was several levels above Josh in the company hierarchy but was not one of Josh’s immediate supervisors; in fact, Josh only interacted with Carl at bi-annual company meetings. Carl’s email stated that all regional bankers at Josh’s level had to attend “a mandatory meeting” and that if they were not able to attend they must have a “really, really, really good excuse.” When Josh received the email, the meeting was 8 days away.

Unfortunately Josh already had a full day that conflicted with the mandatory meeting. He responded to Carl’s email that he was unable to make the mandatory meeting, asked what he needed to do to “make-up for it,” and added that he would prefer if Carl could “give more than 8 days notice for mandatory meetings, especially because he knows that the bankers are told to schedule meetings two weeks in advance.”

Within 24 hours of Josh’s response to Carl, he received three separate phone calls from different supervisors asking him about his “attitude problem.” It was like reporting to multiple bosses in the movie Office Space.  After the phone calls, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, Josh received a brief email from Carl. It said, “You need to check your attitude if you want to be successful with this company. You don’t dictate when mandatory meetings take place.”

Baffled, upset, and angry, Josh called me for advice on how to respond. Here is what I said:

1. Match the message to the medium with the goal of reducing the number of possible interpretations.

2. Whenever real or perceived disagreements exist, the best way to communicate is face-to-face because it reduces the amount of ambiguity. That way people can also rely on nonverbal behaviors.

3. When nonverbals contradict their accompanying verbal statements, we rely on the nonverbals.

4. Don’t aggravate the situation. Let time pass, reflect, and then craft a response to Carl.