Just give me the bad news straight up

Aug 29th, 2017 | By | Category: Commentary

Jeff Hough

By Jeff Hough

Picture a paramedic rushing a severely injured patient into the ER and a waiting doctor asking, “What’s going on?” The paramedic, rather than giving the doctor the bullet (a bullet-point list of what is going on medically) launches into a story about how the patient was minding his own business when … No doctor would stand for that! A paramedic knows time is of the essence and there is no time for a lengthy story about what is happening.

For hundreds of years, people have been using the “sandwich” technique when delivering bad news. The thinking behind the sandwich technique is that by surrounding bad news with good news, the bad news won’t seem quite as bad to those listening. The problem with this technique is that it often disguises the issue and confuses the listener.

When delivering bad news, people often begin difficult conversations with lengthy stories to replace the “bullet.” For example, a few years ago I worked at a company that was being purchased by another much larger company. During the employee meeting to announce the merger, our CEO went on for 20 minutes about all the wonderful things we had done and what a great company we were.

After the first part of the “sandwich” he extolled the virtues of the larger company, how wonderful they were and the strong management team they had. Somewhere in all of that, he slipped in that we were merging with them and that some major changes were coming soon.

He finished his “sandwich” by telling everyone how much better things were going to be—more opportunities, resources and benefits. The meeting lasted an hour and everyone left with unanswered questions. Because the CEO had been so careful to wrap the “bad” news between two pieces of “good” news, what was happening wasn’t clear.

One of my kids recently greeted me with, “Dad, you’re the best!” Immediately I stopped listening and began wondering what happened. Questions like, what broke or are the police involved and how much is this going to cost me, immediately began running through my head. After two of the longest minutes in my life, the bad news came, which really wasn’t so bad compared to all of the horrible scenarios that had been playing out in my head.

Between my CEO and kid experiences I have learned a few things about delivering bad news.

First, when delivering bad news, it very rarely goes as planned. Running through hundreds of scenarios and imagining how the other person will react makes it difficult to even have the conversation.

Invariably, when we try to guess how others will take the news, we project our own thoughts and feelings onto the situation and get everything wrong. Anticipating questions is easy, guessing emotions is nearly impossible. Don’t anticipate the listener’s reaction, just be prepared with the facts.

Second, people want the bad news first and without a lot of explaining. As soon as people guess the real reason for the discussion, they stop listening and begin anticipating what is to come. Just like when my son told me I was the greatest, I knew something was up and began waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Third, be as emotionless as possible. Being empathetic to the person and the situation is important, but keeping your emotions in check is critical. Once emotions become involved, thinking becomes clouded and judgment impaired.

Having difficult discussions is never easy, but remembering these simple lessons will reduce the uneasiness accompanying the conversation. People appreciate honesty and straightforwardness when receiving bad news. Be like a paramedic pulling into the ER and just give the doctor the bullet.

Jeff Hough is a business author, blogger and speaker in Pocatello.

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