Monday, August 22, 2011

I Hate Bad News (Giving and Receiving)

As an editor and as a parent (and heck, as a human being), I'm often forced into the role of delivering bad news. In my role as an editor, I often have to reject submissions or point out problems in submitted manuscripts. As a parent, I have to sometimes explain to my children that we still haven't won the lottery, so I can't buy everything that they happen to see at the store or think they absolutely need this very moment.

Plus, I've had my share of bad news as well. I mean, I was once a child who needed things all the time, and I'm a poet who would like (but doesn't have) a 100% acceptance rate, and I have dozens of ex-girlfriends and even an ex-wife. There's a lot of bad news that's been delivered to me over the years.

And I admit it: I don't like giving or receiving bad news. Not one bit. But it's something all of us have to face--unless we want to walk around with our ears plugged and our eyes closed, which is actually quite dangerous.

Giving Bad News
I've learned a thing or two about giving bad news over the years, and there's one way to immediately cut down on the amount of bad news you have to share: Don't promise anything that you're not 100% you can fulfill. There's a wide gap between wanting something to happen and knowing it will happen.

As a parent, don't tell your kids you'll take them to the playground unless or until you know you're going for sure. That way, they're not disappointed if something else comes up, and they'll be pleasantly surprised once you're on your way over there.

As an employee, don't tell your co-workers or boss that you're definitely going to finish a project early--unless you are 100% sure it's going to happen. After all, there's nothing worse than having to continuously extend deadlines on something you promised would be done a week or month (or more) earlier.

That said, sometimes you can't avoid delivering bad news. Here are some tips for doling it out:
  • Get straight to the bad news. Don't beat around the bush or build an elaborate back story. Doing so will only make your audience anxious or impatient.
  • Stop with the bad news. Don't keep going over the bad news or trying to make the news softer. The more you keep talking (or writing) the worse you make the bad news.
  • Make yourself available for questions. Instead of going on and on after delivering the bad news, just say that you're open to answering any questions. Depending on the bad news you're delivering, you may get a million questions or zero. Either way, you've made yourself available.
Receiving Bad News
Whether it's a partner breaking up with you, a boss firing you, an editor rejecting you, a salesperson telling you they're out of stock on PS3s, thank the person for being straight forward enough to deliver the bad news. Believe me, in most cases, they feel as bad or worse than you do. I mean, just think of when you've had to deliver bad news.

Once you've given yourself a little venting or "figuring things out" time, try these tips for getting past the bad news:
  • Remember that you're still alive. Even if your bad news is a doctor telling you that you've got terminal cancer, you can at least be happy that you've still got another day to enjoy life.
  • Don't give in to the dark side. Star Wars fans know exactly what I mean. For everyone else, don't let your anger or hurt turn you into an ugly person (and I'm not talking physically ugly, but emotionally ugly). Bad news happens, but don't use it as an excuse to be mean, spiteful, or lazy.
  • Search for a positive. Death in the family? Use it to feel thankful for the time you had with that person and to appreciate your own life and the lives of those around you. Broken relationship or lost job? It obviously wasn't meant to be. Don't dwell on something that wasn't meant to be; find what is.

Listen, I don't like bad news. But it's essential to making us who we are. If you can master this art--or at least learn how to survive it--then you're doing better than most. And by better, I mean that you'll be happier than most, because people who avoid bad news aren't happy; they're just hiding.


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Want to learn more on the subject of communicating and handling bad news? Check these out:


Michael Grove said...

Thanks for this article Robert. It comes at a time when I really need it. I wish it was as easy as you make it sound and will do my best to follow the outline here. Thanks Again.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

It's definitely not easy, Michael, on either end of the situation. But it is possible. Best of luck.

Andrea (Andee) Beltran said...

Search for a positive. Making this my daily rule. Thanks, Robert.

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice, Robert. And timely for me.
I am still working through bad news about my job last June. But I realize that I also don't want any "burned bridges" either. So I keep it as light as I can.


Anonymous said...

I love what you say about doling out a bad news. It's something I would like to practice.