How to talk about mistakes or problems in business

Do you use English at work? Do you get tongue-tied when presenting, negotiating or communicating with clients in English? Have you ever struggled to find the right words to break some not-so-good news? In today’s blog post, learn how to talk about mistakes or problems in business.

You may have already read our blog post on business idioms for success. As with anything in life, there are always ups and downs, and things at work can often be far from smooth-sailing. In today’s blog post, we’ll equip you with some useful phrases and idioms so you know how to talk about mistakes or problems in business.

“It’s only when you risk failure that you discover things. When you play it safe, you’re not expressing the utmost of your human experience.”

Lupita Nyong’o

A lose-lose situation

A lose-lose situation is a situation where nobody wins or comes out well. On the other hand, a win-win situation is where only positive outcomes are possible.

Not investing in quality training for the employees is a lose-lose situation for everyone.

Even if we don’t make any new sales, we will have gained publicity, and we can still reuse the material for our current clients. It’s a win-win situation.

Gone pear-shaped

If something has gone pear-shaped, it hasn’t gone smoothly or to plan. Things haven’t worked out very well. Have you ever seen a pear? Their shape is quite strange and uneven.

Unfortunately, since our Project Manager went on maternity leave, things have gone a bit pear-shaped.

I didn’t understand the instructions correctly regarding the spreadsheet data so it’s gone a bit pear-shaped. I think we might need to start it again from scratch.

Slip through one’s fingers

To slip through one’s fingers means to lose something, often due to not giving it the correct attention or being on the ball (bonus idiom = being attentive and quick to respond) with it.

The sale slipped through our fingers because Mark was too busy with other responsibilities to be able to give the client the attention they needed. How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?

In the red

To be in the red is to be making a loss.

Unfortunately, the company has been in the red for the past six months.

I’m afraid we can’t afford to spend any more on this project until we’re out of the red.

Red tape

Red tape describes the bureaucracy and paperwork one needs to go through in order to make something official or do it correctly.

There’s been a delay in the new starter’s start date due to a lot of red tape involved with getting her work visa sorted.

I’m afraid this process might be delayed for a few weeks as there’s a lot of red tape to get through.

Open a can of worms

This idiom means to begin something which causes a lot of underlying unpredictable and complicated problems to be revealed or come to the surface.

Moving over to a new CRM exposed a lot of the faults we had in the current system and opened a can of worms.

We tried to merge the two teams but since they are used to very different management styles it opened a can of worms.

Cut one’s losses 

To cut your losses means to accept defeat or failure with something and stop putting more time, money or energy into it, despite the fact you will be leaving on a loss.

We’ve decided to cut our losses and not focus any more efforts on this campaign. We haven’t made enough sales to justify continuing with it.

Back to the drawing board

To go back to the drawing board is a similar idiom to ‘go back to square one’. It means to return to the conception stage of a creative idea. We use it when things have not worked out as we planned, so we need to go back to the ‘ideas’ phase.

After an unsuccessful product launch, we decided to cut our losses with the latest idea and go back to the drawing board.

The new toy design was nowhere near the projected sales target. It seems it didn’t appeal to as wide an audience as we had hoped. It’s back to the drawing board for now.

Communication problems at work?

Do you or your team use English at work? Perhaps you struggle with how to talk about mistakes or problems in business. Our Employers Who Empower courses are designed to give your team the skills to communicate with confidence.

This is a comprehensive CPD-accredited corporate programme designed to help your employees develop the English and business skills they need to thrive, provide an excellent customer experience and become ambassadors for your growing company.

Our programme includes:

  • 46 training sessions for groups of up to 8 participants
  • English language communication training
  • Essential business and cultural training 
  • Diversity and inclusion training
  • Hand-picked business English trainers
  • Interactive and engaging teaching methods 
  • Accessible and gamified learning materials

If you think our Employers Who Empower business English and communications training could benefit your company, don’t hesitate to book a free consultation today.


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