reduce stress

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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Seven things that actually mattered

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Pick a Puddle.

At my freshman orientation for college (year omitted!) the university’s president said “Don’t be like ducks, with opportunity rolling off your backs like raindrops. Take advantage.” I thought I got it. I wasn’t going to be that duck. I chased a lot of rain, which was great. For a while.

Looking back, I realized he forgot a key point: Don’t forget to pick a puddle.

If you find your puddle and fill it with the things you care about most, you get the good out of it. Puddles don’t have to be small and limiting. They should have room for the things you’re focused on – family, key career ambitions, personal growth – and they should’t overflow with things that distract you from your integral purpose.

Picking a puddle brings focus. It also means saying “no” to the distractions. The nice-to-have resume builder that you don’t really care about? No, thank you. The I-really-should obligation? Maybe there’s someone out there who actually wants to do that one.

This idea really hit home for me when my kids were little. There were other moms in their preschools who volunteered in the mornings and put together events. I worked. I scrabbled time off to go to the early-afternoon cupcake party or the holiday parade, but every time I passed on the sign-up list I felt like I was letting my kids down or somehow being a second-rate mom. I realized that I had to make peace with this situation or drive myself batty.

So I focused on what I could do. I took good care of my kids. I provided supplies. I attended the events the other parents organized. And I let got of feeling like I wasn’t doing enough to pitch in. Much  of my work has been community-focused, taking time and energy during evenings and weekends. That’s my puddle. My kids’ well-being is my puddle. They didn’t care whether I was being a super-mom in everyone else’s eyes. They just wanted to know that I came to their event and that I cared about them. That was enough.

Be purposeful in your career.

Purposeful is not the same as ambitious. Ambition is great. Positive ambition moves us forward, gives us direction, and helps make the world a better place. Ambition alone can be directionless. It can propel us through choices, through jobs, through decisions yet still leave us hunting for the next gold star or seal of approval.

Purpose depends on understanding what’s important to you and making your decisions with both your short-term satisfaction and your long-term interests in mind.

Purpose helps you shape decisions, see opportunities, and follow a path that may not always be direct or clear, but brings you meaning along the way.

I’ve had friends who went for the higher salary and better title with each promotion only to find themselves making a lot of money, living in a nice house, and wondering how they’d ended up there. They could tell their story – they’d been ambitious and collected all the prizes – but they ended up saying things like “I never thought I’d work in a company that doesn’t really do anything.” or “I just make lots of money for other people and they let me keep some.”

Other people I’ve known have been deliberate about taking only opportunities that delighted them at the moment and are left wondering where all the time and money went.

I’ve done both. Taken jobs because they were safe or necessary. Taken risks because I felt cornered. It wasn’t until I started to develop a better sense of my puddle and my purpose that I could begin to make decisions with some long-term meaning.

For some people, this appears to be easy. They seem to know their purpose and pursue it with great intention. When I listen to my friends, co-workers and family though, I believe that most of us don’t have this kind of singular drive. In a world of endless opportunities and choices, this part of career management is a learned art.

Learning yourself is a good place to start.

Don’t stay in bad relationships.

We’ve all gossiped about someone in a bad relationship. Why doesn’t she leave him? Can’t he see what’s wrong with this situation? Most of us know that it’s really hard to see from the inside what we clearly see (or think we see) from the outside.

We stay for many reasons. We fear failure and loss. We rationalize, we make excuses, we don’t question our story about how we arrived here and why we stay. But our story is just that. It’s a story we tell ourselves about the path we’ve followed, the choices we’ve made, and how they all hang together. The thing to remember is that we are writing that story all the time. When you find yourself stuck, wondering where the love went, it’s time to put on your best-friend-perspective and try to see your situation from the outside.

If a co-worker is consistently egging you into situations you’re not comfortable with, maybe it’s time for a new relationship.

If you’re not feeling fulfilled by the choices you’re making about your time, maybe it’s time to choose differently.

Sometimes we stay because we “owe it to them.” Loyalty is good. But be sure you’re being honest. Loyalty that’s a cover for fear, insecurity, or failure to reflect is not good. It’s fine – admirable – to be loyal, and, like with any good relationship, you will change, you will grow, and you can participate in the relationship to make sure you’re getting what you need out of it. That’s when everybody comes out stronger.

Focus on your strengths and fill in your gaps

There are a lot of people out there who are willing to tell you what your weaknesses are and how to fix them. It’s easy to get sidetracked into a self-bending case of triple-i: Insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority. Don’t go there.

You’re not perfect.

But you already knew that.

I remember a favorite teacher telling our class that her job was to help us learn to think. “You need to know how to think and how to find information. You don’t need to memorize the dictionary.”

Find out what you’re really good at and focus on that first. Great with numbers? Master everything you can about budgets, financing, and software. Good at people? Get some experience mediating, leading discussions, and public speaking. Shine.

When you realize you’re not good at something, don’t obsess, just fill in the gaps

You’re the numbers guru but not great at public speaking? Offer to make a budget presentation to your group. Take your strength and use it to support your attempts to fill in your gaps.

Great at leading teams but terrible at meeting deadlines? Get your best performing team together and poll them for suggestions. Then put them in play.

Any change requires discipline, doubling up something that’s easy for you to do with something you need to improve gives you more energy to pull through the tough parts.

Fix. Don’t obsess.

Learn to have difficult conversations

Here’s the exception to “don’t obsess.” If there’s one thing I think we should all obsess over, it’s learning how to have difficult conversations.

Figure out what you fear (confrontation, anger, being wrong, being vulnerable) and find out how to get better at it. There are resources out there. Read them. Learn them. Practice.

This is one skill that you can, and should, master.

It will make you better at everything.

Stuff happens. To everyone.

It’ll happen to you. The thing you didn’t expect that knocks you off your track. It may be temporary, it may be life-altering. It will happen. Probably more than once.

It’s never over.

Keep going.

Ask for help.

It’s probably happening to someone you work with right now.

Give help.

We’re all in this together.

Have a heart

Take a moment to say hello. Notice something. Ask a question. Those people you work with? The ones who annoy you, don’t meet your deadlines, and can’t see what’s completely obvious to anyone who would stop to think for two seconds? There’s probably something good about each and every one of them.

Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been with people I didn’t particularly like at the time. But if you’re willing to set that aside and listen, you may find that they’re only human. They have lives, problems, and people who drive them crazy.

You may be one of them.

You never know when somebody is trying to manage a sick parent in another state, dealing with a rocky marriage, or worried about a kid in trouble.

All you can do is respect them as fellow human beings and try to do your best.

I’ve had the good fortune to know what it’s like to work with people of integrity, to work with a sense of purpose, and to feel compassion and care for the people around me.

I’ve also known what it’s like to be a nameless cog, to be looked down upon, and to feel under-appreciated and unfulfilled. In those circumstances, it’s difficult to bring our best to the table. When I found myself babysitting the monster of all copiers for days on end, shuffling different colored papers in and out of trays and tugging torn bits of confetti from the guts of that toner-laden beast, I was not bringing what I had to offer to the picture.

When I left that job, not knowing what was next, one woman took me aside and said “I’m glad you’re leaving. You’re going to do so much more and when you need a reference, just ask.”

Her confidence gave me hope at a time when I really needed it.

Those are the people we remember.

Maybe if someone had handed me this list years ago, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me, but eventually enough experiences run together and there you have it – your puddle.

Lost is a good place to start

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If you don’t know where you are, or you’re not sure where you’re going, your navigation software isn’t going to get you there.

Most of us have something we’re supposed to be figuring out. Maybe it’s a career path or a difficult family situation. The searching can be frustrating and sometimes lead to shoving the whole project into our mental closet for sometime later when I have more time to deal with this.

It feels safe to know exactly where we’re going next, but when the path isn’t clear, the not-knowing can stop us from even taking the first step.

The Adjacent Possible

The adjacent possible is an idea borrowed from the work of theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman and it is, basically, the concept that evolution happens at the edges of what is already happening. We can’t see ten or twelve steps down the evolutionary path, but we often can see around the edges of what we already know.

The idea is similar to what we do when we want to achieve a reach goal. If you’ve never been a runner but you decide to run a marathon, you probably won’t start by heading out for a 20-mile run. The first step is probably a jog around the block. With that first outing, you’ve stepped into the adjacent possible. With each step outward, you’re expanding your possibilities. 5K? 10K? Half-marathon? Marathon? Triathlon?

A lot of our work is more complicated than laying out a marathon training program because the variables are unpredictable. The Economy. Our co-workers. Changing work-place environments. Changing family situations. In many cases, we leap to a possibility’s fully-formed future and it seems unattainable (I could never do that) or we get overwhelmed by the things that could happen along the way (There’s no way to figure this out) and we stop.

Using the adjacent possible as a guide, and a mind-map as your guidebook, we can break a stretch into attainable possibilities. Notice I didn’t say “break it into steps.” More on that in a moment.

The Unattainable Goal

A single-celled organism didn’t become a Zebra overnight so if you want to be a Zebra, it helps to think backward. What’s in the world around your zebra?

Maybe you want a top-ranking position but you feel like your qualifications aren’t there yet and your experience isn’t sufficient. What would be close to your goal?

This is where a mind-map can come in handy. Jotting down all the experiences and skills that might be hovering around your goal gives you a world from which to map back to where you are now. Take a few of those next-to-your-goal ideas and map them out. You’re essentially after a treasure map, in reverse, leading to where you are today. When your backward mapping begins to contain experiences and skills you already have, you’ve have a map of pathways from today to your future goal.

Once done, it could look something like this:

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The interesting thing about this map is that it will not show you a single path but a web of ways in which you might get to your goal. And the interesting thing about working towards our long-range goals is that both the path and the goal tend to change with time. So hanging onto that map and revisiting it to add new ideas and possibilities is a good idea. After all, each time you change your world, the adjacent possible changes with it.

The Unpredictable Goal

All goals are unpredictable but some are more wild and hairy than others. Our culture tends to reinforce the idea that success and progress are linear, measurable, and easy to map out. We want to list a series of steps, take them one-by-one and- voila! -results achieved. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded by info graphics, predictive models, and performance measures. They can be very helpful but they can also create a sense of risk-aversion if you want to work towards something less numeric and harder to see. Something out there in the soup of future possibilities.

Let’s imagine a hurricane. When meteorologist are predicting where a hurricane will land, they use the cone of uncertainty.

As the storm moves closer, their prediction is more accurate until we have landfall in real time. When you’re working toward an unpredictable goal, you’re pretty far off shore, and your cone is wide. The same exercise above, mapping out the adjacent possibilities, can help. In this case, however, you may be after a particular result – better customer service – and the path you establish could bring in new information that causes your target (your landfall) to shift. If you’ve mapped out a wide range of possibilities for your program, you can keep your eye on the main goal (landfall: improved customer feedback) and be flexible along the way (implementing new ideas that come from your feedback loop).

Your new cone/map of uncertainty might look like this:

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The Missing Ingredient

All these exercises require the one thing that seems to be in shortest supply for everyone I talk with. Time.

We all rush around, checking email and feeling hounded by deadlines and the list of things you didn’t get don yesterday or the day before. Shoving our ideas into the corner is easier than setting aside the time to actually deal with them.

In order to do this, you have to find a way that works for you. (check out Gretchen Rubin’s video on forming habits by being true to your nature – it’s liberating)

Maybe this mind-mapping exercise doesn’t sound like fun in which case it might be your “frog” and you could try doing it first today.

Or maybe you relish the opportunity to daydream and doodle a little and you wouldn’t mind getting up early or spending your lunch hour alone someplace, undisturbed.

If you’re feeling like you don’t have the time at all, think for a moment about all the minutes you’ve already spent thinking about the fact that you’re not dealing with this nagging thing, and maybe the ultimate cost-savings will help you find the motivation to pull out your pen and get busy mapping.

You might find a treasure somewhere along the way.

Who moved my lunch?

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Lunch-meetings!

Lunch-and-Learn!

We’ll provide pizza!

Brown-bag-seminars!

Oh, you think you’re busy and dedicated? We’ll I’ll see you a full calendar and raise you a lunch: “Well, I’m free at noon….”

Is lunch under attack? For a long time, I’ve made it a habit not to schedule lunch meetings, or expect them of others, four days a week. If I stay at my desk, I will work, I will answer questions, I will dribble food on my keyboard, and I will go home to my family and be crabby and exhausted. So I take lunch at the gym. I do reserve one lunch a week to spend as I choose. While there are  a few people who trump my no-lunch-meetings rule, that list is short.

Gym-lunch started out of necessity for me. With kids and a busy job, it was the only time of the day I could consistently exercise. But here’s the really neat part: I’m not the only one. I see a lot of familiar faces and co-workers there, and they’re all pretty awesome workers. I keep my workouts short, eat a quick bite when I get back, and we’re off to the afternoon!

I have a theory about this – the midday workout gets you refocused, gets you through the afternoon slump (often without coffee!) and even if nothing else goes well that day, you’ve done something good. Kind of like making your bed first thing in the morning.

Over time, it’s become easier to just stick with this habit instead of constantly looking for time to exercise in a schedule that doesn’t easily make room for anything “extra”. In theory, it’s pretty easy to establish this kind of habit.

1. put it on your calendar

2. respect the time

It’s the second one that’s hard. Having a workout partner helps a lot – someone who’ll be expecting you, on time, who will be late for something else if you let “just one more task” creep into your designated time.

Finding a research partner, a reports partner or someone who’s trying to make time for something compatible with your goal could help make anything routine – the key is that the other person’s habits will affect yours, so choose your partner wisely.

As for lunch, I believe our workplace sets the tone for a lot of our activities – after all, most of us spend more time at work than anywhere else – so what habits are you cultivating at work and are they contributing to an effective workplace or a stressed-out workplace?