Delivering bad news is hard to do. I can’t imagine that there is anyone out there who enjoys it. As much as I believe in direct, honest communication, giving feedback, and working through conflict, I dislike giving bad news the most.
Delivering bad news was something I had to do recently. Not just to one person but to several people and it helped me put some things into perspective and I learned a few things along the way. Even though it was incredibly difficult, I am grateful for the experience.
So what did I learn?
I learned how important it is to simplify my message as much as possible. When getting bad news, most people shut down or go into fight or flight mode. At first, I tried to fit too much into the delivery of the news (such as all the reasons why) and it confused people. When I reduced it to one sentence, it made it so much easier. Just speak the one sentence.
Silence can be awkward and uncomfortable so we (ok, I) have a strong desire to fill it with more words. I screwed this up a few times by jamming in the WHY immediately after the message. I found I was much more effective and felt calmer when I allowed the silence to be silent. Therefore, after giving the news, I practiced letting the listener sit with it. This is so incredibly hard but so incredibly important. You need to let it sink in before going into the why of the message. And you need to take a deep breath before you continue with the WHY. Silence lets you do this.
I wrote a blog post on the importance of the WHY, so please feel free to reread it here if you would like to understand its significance. Just remember, keep the WHY simple so it’s easier to digest. Bullet point the reasons out, speak them in one or two sentences, and then give the listener space.
Back to taking a deep breath…more than ever before, I learned how important it is to stay in your body and breathe when giving bad news. I found that in anticipation of communicating the news (both in preparation and right before opening my mouth), I experienced the fight or flight rush of stress hormones. I really wanted to avoid this because it causes me to hurry…I want to get it over with as fast as possible. And I dislike the physical and emotional aftermath of adrenaline and cortisol. Before and during the delivery, I took deep breaths into my back and kidneys, paying attention to them the entire time. I can’t tell you how much this helped me keep my composure. I noticed that others matched my breathing, too, which helped them stay calm. Stay centered and just breathe.
I also gained some perspective on my need to try to fix things. I identify with being a problem solver and I found myself wanting to offer solutions when really, it wasn’t my place to do so. Understanding this before I went into my conversations helped me be okay with just delivering the message. Sometimes, you just can’t fix the problem for the person and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Throughout this process, my mantra was “compassion, grace, and gratitude.” That’s how I wanted to deliver my message, always keeping in mind the importance of treating my fellow human beings with dignity and respect, always being grateful for the experience, even when it’s uncomfortable. But I have to say, delivering bad news sucks and I’m glad it’s over.
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