5 ways to deliver bad news better

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We like to think of ourselves as decent people.

Nice. Professional. Fair.

Sometimes, we have to deliver bad news to someone, which can set off internal anxiety and ratchet up our emotional state. “Nice” and “Fair” no longer feel like they’re part of the game, making our situation more challenging.

The good news is that you can deliver bad news better.

1. Hone your message

Preparation for the conversation is essential. I once read that we should spend twice as long preparing for a meeting as we spend actually holding the meeting. While that seems ideal (yet impractical, perhaps?) for many situations, bad-news meetings may be the best time to apply that mindset. Ask yourself what you really need to talk about. Remember that the person on the receiving end is probably going to jump to an elevated emotional state of their own. You’ve had time to prepare, but maybe they haven’t. Choosing your topic and making sure you have researched the facts is important. Don’t overwhelm the conversation, don’t pile on the problems. Choose your message, practice it so you can deliver it without rambling, and avoid the urge to add “one more thing”.

What if you actually do have a lot of things to cover? Take, for instance, the situation where you thought you had one problem and as you looked into it, the problems snowballed and now you’ve got a list of 10 things to cover.

Should you begin by running through the list? That depends. Looking closely, you may be able to prioritize and identify the primary issue or the most time-sensitive one. You may want to start there, let them know upfront that you have multiple concerns but you’d like to begin with your strongest one and return to the others at a later time. Then see #3 below for follow-up

2. Maintain your focus

Remember when you were a kid and you knew you were in trouble? What was your best defense? Distraction!

“But, Lisa didn’t do the chores you asked her to do” (focus on someone else)

“But I did make my lunch yesterday and I fed the dog” (divert to other issues)

Since a lot of our defense mechanisms were developed early on, they can emerge strong when we’re stressed. If the person you’re talking with heads down another path, you will want to bring them back to the topic at hand.

“We can talk about that other project at another time, let’s stay focused on your project for now.”

“I haven’t had time to think about this new issue you’re raising, let’s set a follow-up time for that.”

It’s helpful to spend a few minutes of your preparation time thinking about how the person you’ll be speaking with has reacted in the past. Can you anticipate any of these behaviors? If so, have a few phrases ready to help bring them back into your conversation. When you’re feeling anxious, this will help you bring things back to calm, which is good for everyone involved.

Be true to your word during the conversation. If they are bringing up legitimate concerns and you offer to talk about them at another time, include them in #3.

Platitudes will diminish trust even if they seem to diffuse the situation in the moment.

3. Have a plan for resolution, but hold it lightly

I remember getting into some kind of trouble when I was a kid and being asked “What do you think your punishment should be?” This was such a startling question to seven-year-old me and I remember thinking “Isn’t that your job?”

As adults, we can, and should, have some responsibility for resolving the situation we’re in. Of course, there may be situations where policies, laws, and other governing direction has already been set, but many of our interactions are less prescriptive and what we’re looking for is an approach that brings us to a shared understanding of what happens next.

If you’re prepared, you may have some suggested corrective actions. This is useful, but don’t forget to be receptive to new information during your conversation and work that into a plan of action.

The best possible outcome is an agreement on action that has buy-in from both parties involved.

4. Agree on follow-up with clarity.

This one’s simple. What are you each going to do? By when? And how will you know it’s done.

Too often, we leave meetings or conversations in a rush with a general sense of what will happen only to later discover that we didn’t leave with the same tasks in mind.

  • Write it down.
  • Repeat it back.
  • Exchange notes after the meeting.
  • Set a follow up date and time

Having clarity, especially after an emotional discussion, is key. When we’re angry, upset, or otherwise distracted by our emotions, we’re not thinking at our clearest. Having something in writing and an ability to check back for clarity can help set things back on track.

5. Let it go

We all make mistakes. Every single one of us.

You never really know what else is going on in someone’s life and how your issue fits into their constellation of events. They may be struggling with something in their personal life, they may be excited about a positive change and focused elsewhere. They may have a different style of relating or communicating that’s making it hard for the two of you to connect.

You may have other pressures and situations that are impacting your view of the situation. Stress about another part of your job, anxiety about your career, personal demands, they can all influence our actions in ways we don’t see clearly in the moment.

You don’t have to like everyone you meet or interact with, but remembering that they each have some humanity and respecting that can help you move away from the emotional reactions you’re having and focus on the discussion at hand.

When it’s done, if you have a clear plan of action, you can focus on that and let the rest go.

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