Honesty. We all say we want it. ‘No sugar coating for me!” Most of us claim (in our world view) to practice it. “I’m honest to a fault.” Too often though, unintended outcomes follow expressions of honesty because we don’t know how to effectively employ it.
Difficult conversations are uncomfortable because there is no hiding place from the inevitable truth and the responses it may provoke. Honesty is frequently a portal to vulnerability. Being totally honesty is much easier when it won’t cost us something, often that being how others see us or how we see ourselves.
Difficult Conversations AKA Bad News or Crisis Communication. Difficult conversations aka ‘bad news’ or crisis communication involves a perception of loss in some form for the recipient. Loss is anything that requires letting go of something, usually involuntarily. Response to loss is directly related to the recipient’s meaning narrative and meaning is what drives reactions. “You’re being let go” scenes in the movie ‘Up In The Air’ serve as great examples.
Think You Can Avoid Bad News? A serious illness or a terminal prognosis, a legal defeat, euthanizing a pet, addressing conflict, making an apology, delivering a death or injury notification, breaking up a relationship or explaining an imminent divorce to children are all examples of ‘bad news’. Unless you’re living under a rock, a tough conversation is going to happen for you or to you at some point, and most likely not just once. It’s a part of life.
In the workplace, lest you think difficult conversations might be limited to termination, performance and discipline issues or informing someone they have a body odor problem (yes, that really does happen and more than you think), 2013 statistics for workplace suicide saw a 12% increase over the previous year. Envision the difficult conversations after an incident like that! Management and HR professionals have their work cut out for them.
Challenges to Success. Think about a time in your life when you received really bad news. Did the way the news was given help or make it worse?
As a communication consultant it’s been my experience that no matter the industry or occupation, the following challenges are universally reported by those tasked with difficult conversations:
- Anxiety; Discomfort both emotional and physical
- Fear of the unknown; Fear of response
- Fear of losing control of the situation
- Fear of failure (in giving the news or being seen as one because of it)
- Discomfort with causing distress; Fear of losing ‘helper’ status
- Avoidance to the point of inertia
Sound Familiar? Having observed countless difficult conversations within business, legal, social service, healthcare, law enforcement and crisis response settings, not infrequently the notifier’s personal discomfort hijacked the conversation resulting in unsatisfactory outcomes for both parties. Invariably, the notifier shut down, commonly described as ‘distancing myself so I can do my job ‘.
Effective development and use of discomfort management tools liberates the notifier from the distraction of personal anxiety, affording better outcomes without the need for distancing and fear of diminished performance.
Giving bad news can feel like pushing someone off a cliff. We may not be able to control the consequences of the news itself but we can manage how we convey that news.
You Need A Plan. A Child Protective Service client had to deliver an unexpected and immediate death notification to a troubled teen with a history of violent and sociopathic behavior. Understandably, the caseworker was anxious about the impact of this news and concerned for her personal safety and that of a young intern accompanying her. Within 1 hour, we formulated a plan for: controlling the message, the location, seating arrangements, phrasing, body language and transitioning. In spite of the news, her facilitation of the plan resulted in a newfound confidence for this caseworker, a teachable moment for the intern and a deepened trust level with the teen.
No matter how immediate a difficult conversation must be, it’s always possible to stop and think. ‘Winging it’ is not a plan.
Long-Term Impact. Research and anecdotal reports tells us that in particular, employment termination and death notification can cause increased heart attacks, trauma, violence and PTSD in both the notifier and recipient. An FBI study on active shooting incidences in the U.S. between 2000-2013 reported that 17% of active shooters had been terminated from employment on the day of the shooting.
TMI? If you’re struggling with ‘how much is too much’ information, a close cousin to ‘TMI’ (Too Much Information), ask yourself these questions: what will be helpful; what will be effective; what is necessary? Leaning towards omitting information? Ask yourself…and be honest: Is my personal discomfort influencing this decision; what will be the consequences when (the truth always comes out eventually) the whole truth is revealed and how will I explain withholding it?
Here’s The Key. You can tell people the truth without bashing them over the head with it. Brutal honesty can be just that, brutal and the virtue of honesty does not bestow license to unnecessarily injure or be careless. No matter how justified a difficult conversation is,
Never take someone’s dignity. It means everything to them and nothing to you.
So, If “tbh” has been the precursor to unsatisfactory outcomes for you, rethink your delivery. Because your words matter.