Softening the blow of bad news

The term ‘bad news’ denotes that it’s not likely to be met with jubilation, but if we’re the ones giving it we can learn to navigate those difficult conversations with respect and understanding, and hopefully minimise the fallout.

In this final instalment of this three-part series, here are the fundamentals to consider when faced with dishing out a bitter pill:

• The set-up

There might never be a perfect time to let someone down, break their heart, crush their hopes and dreams or tell them the coffee machine is broken, but if it has to be done, there are a few things to be mindful of. Being blindsided by bad news makes it all the worse, so even if it is sudden and there isn’t time for prior warning, setting the right tone from the get-go will at least clue them in.

For example, use a calm but serious tone of voice, offer them a seat, get them to focus on you and what is about to be said, etc.

Also, be mindful of what’s following the meeting.

Are they about to deliver a speech to thousands, or perform surgery?

It’s best to time your bad news when recipients have privacy and space to digest it.

• The delivery

It sucks being the bearer of bad news, but however tempting it is to avoid it or the truth, the least we can do when potentially disappointing someone is to do it with dignity.

This means giving them your full attention.

Look them in the eye. Clearly state the decision, the reasons for the decision, the desired or expected outcome of the decision.

Be compassionate. Empathise that it may be hard to hear and they may be hurt, but don’t cloud the message with lengthy waffle, analogies and euphemisms because it might get lost. And if they don’t get it, you might end up having to deliver the bad news all over again.

• Bear out their reaction, and listen

There are three typical reactions to hearing bad news: the emotional outbreak (wobbly chin, tears, panic over what to do next, etc); shocked silence (see last week’s instalment for an example); and the arguer (someone who is not quite willing to accept the news and bent on arguing their way to a different outcome).

Any one can be unnerving, but the key to helping you both through it, is listening. When someone starts to cry in front of us, we have the urge to do anything to make them stop — including taking back what we’ve said, or muddying the waters with palliatives.

What is far more productive than commiserating or apologising is asking what is most upsetting, what thoughts are coming to mind?

When we make time for someone to think through their shock or fear or hurt, and listen, we can then help them make sense of the situation for themselves.

If the reaction is silence, this is not a cue to get back to work and think it’s all done and taken care of.

The person is clearly taking time to process the information. Asking open-ended questions to help draw out their thoughts and feelings about the situation can lead to good insights and ways of going forward.

When someone jumps in to argue the news, the most important thing is not to let their demeanour trigger you into reacting negatively, as that will only escalate conflict and make matters worse.

Stand your ground. Again, calmly asking questions and getting them to explore their feelings can result in them uncovering what they are fearful of.

Are the ‘stories’ they are telling themselves sparking their anger?

Discovering the common ground between you will help build bridges for maintaining the relationship.

The best thing a bad news bearer can do is to help the receiver put the news into perspective.

What does this really mean? What are the options? What happens now?

Who has to be told and how? Focusing on the future and its potential and possibilities is a great way to ease people out of being stuck in the bad news blues.

Handling bad news delivery well takes practice and courage and preparation. Grounding ourselves in the importance and truth of the news helps us stay the course. A key learning for me has been — whether it’s me giving or getting it — understanding that the bad news is not personal, even when it feels like it is.

If someone isn’t right for a particular job, or person, or situation, it is not that they are bad or wrong, a failure, or any of the other ‘stories’ our minds jump to, simply that this is not the right thing for them at this time.

There is no fear or upset in this really.

Things may not be what we had expected, but they always hold an opportunity to learn and grow.

•Julia Pitt is a trained success coach and certified NLP practitioner on the team at Benedict Associates. For further information contact Julia on 705-7488,<;/i>

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Published Sep 20, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated Sep 20, 2017 at 8:06 am)

Softening the blow of bad news

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