I have just been listening to an item on Radio Five live on my way to see a client in West London. When delivering effective communication skills I am often asked about difficult conversations and how to manage them. Therefore when I heard the proposed subject – I tuned in hard.
“So just how do you deliver bad news? “ asked the interviewer to a north country based GP. And then followed the best piece of reasoned common sense from a seasoned expert I have heard for a long time. The good doctor herself explained her background: she had worked in numerous GP surgeries and local accident and emergency centres. She then proceeded the share the following with the listeners – the go to phrase that she always used in dire circumstances:
“ There is only one way to tell you this….”
To the point or what?
Her reasoning was that there is no point taking the potential recipient of horrendous news round the houses with detail they can’t take in and allowing them to build up false hope that can’t be delivered. This is precisely when a maelstrom of emotions will kick in at a time of extreme stress that potentially will take years to overcome. The doctor is in a position of power and she does not abuse it. She tells it how it is.
Of course not all news is off the Richter scale of dramatic like these examples but in day-to-day life we have to tell others things we don’t want to say.
The CBI estimates that workplace conflict costs UK business £33 billion per year, taking up 20% of leadership time and potentially losing up to 370 million working days.
It is possible and potentially kinder to take the assertive route to what may seem the unpalatable or unwanted news. This is not the time to beat around the bush. So often the person who is delivering the bad news that for example redundancies will take place, an order has been lost, the project is running is more worried about having to deliver the message than who is on the receiving end of it. As with any form of communication your emotions go on the back boiler and the only person or people that matter are the ones listening to what you have to say. Get it right and you win trust and respect as a leader and communicator, get it wrong and it could prove costly emotional, productively and financially.
The Doctor in the radio interview told the listeners something that has really resonated with me and people I have talked to since. The two things people can’t handle in life are power and uncertainty. When you are in the workplace with any position of authority don’t abuse it and then add uncertainly into the mix. Moving the goal posts, being unpredictable is not an appealing trait in a work colleague. A sure recipe for disgruntled and future job-hunting employees.
I remember working for a publishing house then based in central London and being told by the managing director that we would definitely not be moving. Oh good we all thought – carry on as usual. Phew.
The next month he called us all in to tell us we would be relocating to deepest Middlesex. “Where’s that?”, thought many of us and “where is the exit?”, thought the rest.
Disbelief, anger and distrust resulted in a massive loss of staff and institutional knowledge to other companies and competitors and resentment from those left behind. All at a financial and reputational cost to the organisation.
So what needs to be done to avoid this?
It is not all simply about telling them how it is. Like all forms of communication there are other aspects to this you can learn.
In the meantime, here are a few pointers to help you with delivering bad news:
- With whatever little time you have preparation is still all. Rehearse it is just in your heard. Get your mind into gear. Keep your own motions in check.
- Plan the conversation before hand. Think of the words you will use and the impact they will have on the receiver. Role-play it if necessary with a colleague. Check the word being used and err on the side of fact and avoid being overly emotional.
- Act swiftly – I recently witnessed a senior leader having to tell colleagues that the chief executive had died. The news was delivered literally hours after the news came through to ensure before body language of the senior team didn’t give gave the game away through furtive glances, built up fear and panic. There was initial panic but that was soon superseded by comfort and solutions. A dire situation that was not exerbated by needless delay and uncertainty.
- Acknowledge the person’s emotions appropriately. Be attentive and supportive, but don’t say “I know how you feel,” because you don’t. How about acknowledgement in the form of, “This is a terrible shock to you.”
- Listen to what they have to say and paraphrase what you hear back to them. This shows you are really engaging and listening and connecting. It gives them a chance to hear back what they have said correct you if you are wrong or even correct themselves and retune their thoughts and opinions.
- So you have just dropped a big one on the listener, which may well leave them reeling and emotional. If they get emotional or even angry with you is not your job to mirror that behavior. Keep your voice low and acknowledge with assertive statements such as,“I am can hear that you are angry.” Another tip I learnt when dealing with anger – if you are sitting down stay seated even if the recipient comes towards you. Standing up and facing them down will escalate the tension. If you do want to remove yourself tell the person what you are doing, thank them for listening and set an alternative time to continue the conversation.
Of course all this improves with practice – and learning from what you got right and what you could improve on. Becoming an effective communicator comes through self-awareness, awareness of others around you and the right body language and choice of reactions and language. Trying all these techniques out in a safe and controlled environment can be one major step forward in redefining yourself as the better you.