Why giving bad news on projects can literally hurt

By ahsigmon | Blog

Mar 24
child cover eyes

Excerpt from my book Delivering Bad News in Good Ways

My book titled Delivering Bad News in Good Ways is coming out in April so naturally I’ve been doing a lot thinking and writing about communication – style, medium, content, process, and expectations. One chapter of the book reaches into our childhood to understand why we struggle as adults with giving bad news so I’ve decided to explore that a bit here before writing that chapter.

Businessman Thinking on Steps Paris, FranceSo consider this…

Have you ever told someone your “true feelings” only to learn they “just want to be friends?” Ouch.

Remember that time when you worked so hard on a proposal, project plan, design, or research paper, and it was ripped to shreds by others? Really??? How could they not see the brilliance you slaved to create…

How did you feel when you had to tell a sponsor of a project or perhaps a loved one something you knew would likely throw the project, a team, or life into a tailspin? Need Ibuprofen and a bed. Now.

We’ve all had professional and personal situations where we’ve had to give and receive bad news. Whether you are the giver or receiver of bad news, any sentient being will feel it and in some cases literally feel it.

I ran across a good article called Psychologists: Physical and Social Pain Hurts the Same Way which looks at how social rejection can be experienced like physical pain. Most people can vividly recount moments as children and adults where they experienced rejection or what was perceived as rejection.

The pain associated with those experiences can be so acute that the person may avoid or have an ineffective technique when giving future bad news because they remember the past hurt so deeply. How people experience this varies.

Researchers found that people who are more sensitive to physical pain experience social pain and rejection more acutely. And to add yet another twist to the findings, when these people were given Tylenol for three weeks, they experienced less emotional pain. It didn’t say if giving or receiving bad news got any easier. I imagine that part doesn’t change. It’s just how we cope with it internally and how we manage it with others.

To understand why giving bad news can be difficult, ask yourself a few things:

  • What kind of reaction did (or does) your boss, an authority figure, or someone you care about have to bad news? How do you physically feel in response to their reaction? What helps you work past the experience so you can move towards a solution to the problem?
  • As a kid when you saw one adult giving bad news to another adult, how did they take it? Anger, withdrawal, sadness? What did that feel like to you? Good, bad, scary, threatened?
  • What does “rejection” mean to you? If you’re giving bad news is their response really rejection of you or are your emotions influencing your interpretation? How do you stay focused on the situation and not let the “pain” of delivery and their response get in the way?

Once we have insight into why we respond as we do (stomach ache, headache, anger, mean words, blame, delay sharing, avoid or pass it off to someone else?), then we can get a grip on managing our internal response which then frees us up to focus on finding solutions faster.

While giving bad news will likely sting on some level no matter how aware and prepared you are, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the situation.

You can’t completely change the response of the receiver, but you can definitely influence it by having a handle on your own emotions so be with your own response to the bad news first then start planning for how and when you’re going to share it.

Delivery is important. Be direct, focused, and empathetic. Line up the facts. Be prepared to share your position. Have solution recommendations on hand once the receiver has recovered and is ready to figure out what you both will do next.

What techniques have worked for you when sharing what you consider to be bad news?

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