How to Maintain Integrity and Deliver Negative News

Ever received a piece of negative news? Were you blissfully tripping through life thinking everything was rosy when out of the blue you learned something that impacted you in a big, big way? You never saw it coming. Now your world is upside down and suddenly, there is a new reality to cope with.

How to have a difficult discussion

It takes a while to get your bearings again, doesn’t it? Would things have been easier to manage if you’d had a heads-up?

Of course. 

Negative news is never easy to hear. While discomfort and disappointment are part of life, the true test of character is how we handle ourselves as both the giver and receiver. 

It doesn’t matter whether your situation occurs at work or in relationships, people don’t like surprises. They deserve honesty and transparency, so they can…

  • adapt their mindset
  • maintain a sense of self-respect
  • change their tone or language
  • make a behavioral course correction
  • become more self-aware
  • pursue other opportunities
  • manage their emotions
  • focus energy
  • take control of their circumstances

So give people credit for being grownup enough to handle it. No one is served by being elusive, vague or dishonest by omission. Many justify delaying the inevitable because they’re uncomfortable, but the longer you wait, the more this issue will weigh on you. It’s  like not knowing what you have in your checking account. You’re afraid to look, but know you can’t put it off forever. And you will feel so much better once the deed is done.

The recipient may not like what you have to say, but they’ll be more likely to see you as a person with principle and integrity for having the cojones to speak up. You’ll prove you walk your talk.

HOW TO HAVE THE CONVERSATION

There is a popular feedback approach called the Sandwich Communication Method where you start the conversation with something positive, then lead into the constructive feedback and close with another positive comment.

Let’s not fool ourselves. People know that when you start a conversation by saying, “Bob, I really like the effort you put into the XYZ project, BUT…” there will be something negative coming next. Everyone I’ve ever asked tells me the same thing – they know the BUT is coming so they aren’t even listening to what you said just before that. And the positive comments you make at the end seem gratuitous. People question your sincerity.

Some say that giving two pieces of positive feedback will balance out the negative feedback. Yet according to social psychologists, negative feedback “weighs” nine times more than positive. It’s heavier. It has a bigger impact. It makes a bigger withdrawal from Stephen Covey’s emotional bank account. Even though you may have put a lot of emotional credits into their account, one big event could wipe out all the savings you’ve worked so hard to build.

The best way to build trust is to be straight with people. There are a number of ways you can do this.

LANGUAGE TO LAUNCH BY

Yes, I know it’s hard to have the conversation. The hardest part is just knowing how to start. So here are some phrases you can use:

  • I have some concerns…
  • You deserve to know that…
  • I respect you enough to tell you the truth…
  • You’ll respect me more if I’m straight with you…
  • I want to be honest and transparent…
  • I don’t want to undermine our relationship…
  • You’ll trust me more if I…
  • I want to maintain integrity…
  • I’d like to openly discuss…
  • You’ll be able to make better choices if I…
  • We will both be better off if I…
  • I’d like us to create a new approach…
  • I’d like you to have every chance to…

THE 5-F COMMUNICATION METHOD

When people are nervous, they tend to blank out and have a hard time remembering what to say. It makes it easier if you put structure into the conversation by framing it with these five components:

Facts – be specific; stay above the “waterline” by not assuming you know what people are thinking or what has motivated them

Feelings – Are you concerned, confused, misunderstood, unclear, frustrated?

Fallout – the most likely outcome if things continue as they are

Feedback – give them the opportunity to share their thoughts/feelings

Focus – on the end goal or objective you’d like to achieve to move forward

Even if you don’t remember to address each one of these components or even get them in order, including two or three steps will help guide the discussion.

ASK OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS

It’s not necessary you do all the talking. Asking questions is a great way to get input from the other person so you can have a conversation. And by the way, asking one or more of the questions below doesn’t mean you are waffling or backtracking on your difficult news. These questions are designed, however, to help you coach the person and hopefully help them move from where they are to a much better place. Make sure to start with “how” or “what” so you don’t put them on the defensive. “Why” and “when” questions sound accusatory.

  • how would you like this to end?
  • how could you/we do this differently?
  • what do you think worked?
  • what could you/we have gone better?
  • what can I do now to make things better for you?

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” ~Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

PRINCIPLE OF LEGITIMACY

Most people just want to know that things make sense. They will accept negative news much better if you apply the Principle of Legitimacy. Originally created in 1814 at the Congress of Vienna, it provided guidelines for rulers. But it applies to modern day relationships and interpersonal communication too. The three components include:

  1. The rules don’t change
  2. People will be treated fairly
  3. They have a voice in the matter and can be heard

If you keep these principles in mind, you’ll be much more successful when you decide to have the big chat.

IN SUMMARY

Life is tough. Communication is a challenge for most people. Relationships are complex and don’t follow predictable paths governed by checklists or flowcharts. We are complicated creatures. And we possess a boundless capacity for using our emotions and intelligence to achieve much better outcomes. There is everything to be gained and little to lose by doing the right thing for the right reasons.

So often time it happens, we all live our life in chains, and we never even know we have the key. ~The Eagles, “Already Gone”

 ADDITIONAL READING

Why the Open Door Communication Policy is a Bunch of Baloney

How to Kill a Relationship By the Way You Respond