5 Ways to Receive Bad News Better

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I recently shared five ways to deliver bad news better, which got me thinking about receiving bad news.

We’re never just the person dolling out bad news (if we are, we might need to do some soul-searching with some close friends) and hearing something we don’t want to hear can be painful. But it can also be an opportunity to grow.

If you’re like me, you can probably think of a few  things you’d rather be doing instead of learning what’s not going right, but if you’re lucky, and people share the good, the bad, and the ugly with you, you may be able to mine some gold from those murky moments.

How to grow with grace?

1. Don’t try to be perfect, don’t pretend to be perfect, in fact, forget all about perfect.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, baby, practice.”

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. The thing is, I’m tone deaf and not musically inclined. A lot of practice made me better, but it never got me to Carnegie Hall.  Eventually, I stopped worrying about playing the piano and moved on to other things. But that phrase bugged me. A lot. The implication being that if you just work hard enough at something, you’ll get there. In my perfectionist mind, I hadn’t gotten there. That meant I was on the failing end and it was my fault.

The quest for perfection is something we admire and laude, but taken as an absolute it can prevent us from trying, learning, and seeing what’s not working. Criticism can bring up our defenses and a lighting-fast urge to “fix it” and get back on the perfectionist path can prevent us from taking the time to be open to what we’re hearing.

I’ve read a couple of books about Frederick Law Olmsted recently, and they both describe a young man in search of his path. Landscape architecture wasn’t a profession yet, and the man who eventually designed Central Park and so many other magnificent spaces tried his hand at surveying, being a sailor, running a gold mine, and farming (to name a few). When something didn’t work out, he tried something else. Over time, he developed his path and his profession in a way that suited his interests. I can only imagine that there must have been times when it would have been easier to try harder and stay with something he’s started.

Instead, he took what he needed from those experiences and moved forward; his ability to change course with integrity was a character trait noted by his friends.

If we’re not blinded by the search for perfection, we can be open to the sparkle of truth when something isn’t going as planned.

2. Give it a little time

Receiving bad news is not easy. No matter how much equilibrium we may be experiencing, it can knock us off balance. If we’re not ready to hear it, that’s okay. Sometimes the best way to receive bad news is over time. A day later….a week later…..sometimes it takes us a long time to see into our dark spots.

But what to do in the moment if you feel that rush of anger or adrenaline kick in?

Have this phrase handy: “I’m going to need some time to think about this.”

What if what’s really going through your head is “You have no idea what you’re saying, there are a million things wrong with your assessment and you’re wrong, wrong, wrong!”

You could try to set the record straight.

If there are inaccurate facts or missing pieces of information and the conversation is time-sensitive, you could try to share them on the spot. But if you’re emotional, you may not be able to hear what’s being said and you may not share your information clearly.

What about, “I think I can offer some clarification, can you give me a minute/hour/day/week?

3. Don’t let it get to you

I don’t mean ignore what’s being said, I really mean don’t obsess over it. When we ruminate, we can’t let it go. We have imaginary conversations in our head, we try out different versions, we test a response we wish we’d given. That’s a lot of brain power spent on being in a rut.

Does what you heard feel unfair? If so, ask yourself why. We react strongly to unfairness; we also react to the things that we know are our weaknesses. They rub us the wrong way and we go back to them like a spot we can’t reach, trying to resolve them.

If there’s  crumb of truth in what you’ve been told, you may be defensive, or you may eventually come to consider it closely and see it in a new light. Sometimes we’re just not ready to hear what someone else is saying. That’s okay. If the same thing comes up time after time, we’re likely to notice it and eventually come to it with an open mind.

Running up and down a rut, replaying a conversation, and imagining how we could show the other person how wrong they are are diversions that prevent us from relaxing into an open mind.

4. Let yourself change

We all change. An interesting study discussed in the New York Times about the “end of history” illusion shows that we are much better at acknowledging how we’ve changed from our past selves to today yet we are not able to imagine how we will be different in the future. Try it: have you changed from who you were 5 or 10 years ago? Now look forward: how different do you think you’ll be in 10 years? For most of us, it’s hard to imagine we’ll change as radically in the future as we have in the past.

It’s okay to change your opinion, to adapt to new information, and to seek out new situations and experiences.

You will change.

5. Know what to ignore

These suggestions assume that the giver of bad news is well intentioned. There will be times when someone says something that isn’t true, isn’t well intended, or is downright hurtful.

Not everyone is here to help us grow, and it’s okay to toss those in the mental rejection file.

If you’re interested in the other side of the conversation, check here.

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