5 Ways to Receive Bad News Better


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.

Do you agree with these two truths for ending the blame game?


The rate with which germs have been flying around reminded me of a conversation I had with a close friend not too long ago. She was wondering why everyone is so quick to point the finger, sending the blame flying around the room from person to person.

“Why do we spend more time figuring out who’s to blame and defending ourselves than we spend just fixing the problem?” she asked.

Good question.

A recent encounter with a fast-moving virus gave me an excellent opportunity to sit around and ponder this question between sniffles. (blame the germs)

Is it because we are constantly bombarded with news of who’s to blame for the latest political crisis, celebrity scandal, or consumer fraud? (blame the media?)

Is it because the economy’s been through the wringer and many of us are clinging onto jobs, dealing with circumstances different from what we’d hoped for and expected? (blame work?)

Or is it because we’re so quick to publicize the failures and shortocmings of the people around us and we’re afraid that will come back around to bite us when (not if) we make our own mistake? (blame ourselves?)

No matter who we blame, we can be pretty unforgiving. And sometimes it’s for keeps. Especially online.

If we want to understand blame, it’s helpful to begin with two truths:

  • I am part of the situation.
  • I may see how you are part of the situation.

How do you feel?

I had to stop for a moment after I typed that and screw my courage to the sticking place.

It’s a whole lot easier to focus on the second one, but that tends to turn into putting all the responsibility on the other person and it’s rare for any one person to be entirely to blame for a situation.

Instead of hunting for a scapegoat, it’s useful to think about how we’ve contributed and how the other person may have knowingly or unknowingly contributed to the problem.

You don’t typically go into your work with malicious intent, right?

Well, your co-workers probably don’t either.

There are a host of explanations for why people act the way they do and why they make the decisions they do. If we assume the worst of them and don’t bother to ask them, we’re really only operating with half the play book. At best.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume you’ve made your peace with the two truths and you’re ready to begin putting them into play.

How’s that going to work?

In my friend’s example, after she described her work-place, I imagined some sort of dysfunctional family holiday where she would walk in and announce “I’m part of the problem! So are all of you and I can tell you what you’re doing wrong!” Yikes. Pass the turkey.

You may be in an environment where you’re ready, collectively, to take that big step.

Or you may need practice.

Beginning with the smaller situations may be easier. Ask someone you’re on good terms with to observe you in action and to share their point of view  – it could help you uncover your role.

Spend some time disentangling your observations about what someone else did versus why you think someone did something – it could help you discover their role in a way you can share. This is key because nobody wants to be told why they’re doing something (you’ll probably get it wrong). But they can probably have a conversation about what specific things happened and their impact on the task at hand.

It’s the difference between “you always try to undermine me when I speak up in meetings” and “When I tried to share our sales data you interrupted me.”

Practicing with these two truths in smaller situations can help warm your team up for the big game.

This is really complicated and I’m curious what other people are experiencing. I’m waiting for my friend to let me know what changes in her workplace, what about you?

Have you tried to deal with the blame game in your workplace? If so, what do you think?

Do you think the two truths hold?


You’re doing great! You’re failing miserably! (and other useless feedback)


I got a book from the library a few weeks ago called Thanks for the Feedback – the art and science of receiving feedback well  by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.

Feedback? You probably want to stop reading right now, don’t you? Or offer some…

The funny thing was when I opened the book, the book jacket was on backward and upside down. I wondered for a moment if this was a librarian’s joke (our librarians have a great sense of humor- and I speak from personal experience here). Was I supposed to figure out how to give them feedback about the book?

But here’s the thing that makes this a great read – it’s that one extra word in the title: receiving.

The bottom line here may be that it really is all about you. How do you manage feedback? Because if every conflict has at least two parties, and you’re one of them, then you know which one you might stand half a chance of managing, right?

The book got me to think about how we use feedback at work and how fraught with conflict it often is.

  • A co-worker who is trying to help us see into our blind spots
  • An employee who is not meeting our expectations
  • A boss who doesn’t communicate well
  • Customers, committees, boards, clients

And outside work, we are always getting and sending messages to our friends and family.

Most of us really want some real information about how we’re doing, but it can also be hard to hear what usually sounds like criticism.

I recommend reading the book if you’re looking for a really thorough study of the art of receiving feedback with lots of how-to examples.

But here’s a specific aspect of feedback that can help reduce conflict. How specific are we being?

When a performance review, for instance, says “great job!” it’s hard to know what about your work was valued. The lack of specificity may even make us doubt that our supervisor knows what our work actually entails. They haven’t given us any clues to go by. Was it my presentation style? My written report? My interaction with a team? My supervisory skills?

When we’re trying to grow or develop a new talent or skill, we’re especially interested in knowing how we’re doing.

Specificity in feedback can reduce misunderstandings and conflict.

Let me be specific.

When we’re giving feedback, we can reduce confusion and increase clarity by sharing our observations in detail.

Instead of this:

Great job at this morning’s meeting. Let’s hit the deadline.

Maybe this:

At this morning’s meeting, you said (insert quote of that thing they really said – not a paraphrase – this may require you to jot down some notes occasionally). I was pleased because it showed an understanding of the group’s assignment and you were asking for others to contribute to the project (I’m making this up, but you get the idea – why is what they did important?). It’s important to get this project done on time and I appreciate your efforts to include everyone in the room. Do you need anything else to meet the deadline?

That’s an example of how to give feedback though. What if you’re on the receiving end of the first type of feedback?

You may try to ask for the specific information you need.

Imagine this:

Supervisor: Great job at this morning’s meeting. Let’s hit the deadline.

Awesome. Except I have no idea what was great. I was trying to manage three conflicting personalities in the room and my kid might be coming down with a cold and I kept hoping the school wouldn’t call in the middle of the meeting. And, by the way,  I’m nervous about this new project.

You: Thanks, I know the deadline is important to you. Can you share a little more about what you observed this morning that was successful? That might help me better understand what you’re looking for. This is a new type of project for me and I’d like to be able to meet your expectations.

Supervisor: No worries, you’re doing great, just keep doing what you’re doing.

Okay, s/he’s getting a little irritated. Maybe they were not really paying attention during the meeting? How can I reframe a check-in as being in their best interest? And perhaps model some of what I’m looking for?

You: Thanks, I know you have some high expectations here and it would help me to spend a few minutes sharing what I think is working and what our next steps are – maybe we could check in for 5 minutes later today? I’ll bring some specific questions so we can keep it brief.

Supervisor: Okay, sure, 5 minutes.

You: Great.

Ack! I wonder if I have time to run to the library, get that book, read it all and use it…..haha. Okay, what am I really after in this conversation? And I’d better arrive prepared with specific observations and questions that can be handled in 5 minutes.

Now it’s back in your court. The conflict in this particular situation is internal. You’re looking for information, guidance, direction, and your supervisor isn’t giving it.

Maybe by modeling the specific interaction you’re after, they’ll be able to give you what you need.

If you’re lucky enough to have employees who are asking for feedback, Thanks for the Feedback – the art and science of receiving feedback well  by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. is a good resource.

Taking the sting out of giving – and hearing – feedback can reduce a lot of workplace tensions.

Do you have examples of how you’ve tried this?

Has it worked?

When has it backfired?