Delivering Bad News: Lessons from My Five-Year-Old

Last night my husband and I had to deliver some difficult news to our five-year-old daughter: her favorite baseball player (“in the universe, mom”) Todd Frazier was traded from her favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds, to the Chicago White Sox. This may seem fairly trivial to most; it happens all the time in baseball. But this particular five-year-old can recite the batting order of the Reds from memory, knows a litany of facts about her favorite third baseman, and carries around a Todd Frazier doll. So in her world, this news was pretty devastating.

We were dreading the conversation. But, being an experienced project manager, this was not the first time I’ve had to deliver bad news. I thought back to a few key concepts I’ve learned over the years, and went into the conversation a bit better prepared:

  • Know what you are going to say, but don’t use a script. Preparation is good, but sticking to a strict plan almost never works. The conversation never goes quite how you think it will. As long as you have a clear understanding of what you want to communicate, you should be able to have a meaningful conversation.
  • Be direct. Don’t dance around the subject or spend a lot of time building up to the heart of the information; keep the message brief. And don’t add fluff to try and soften the blow; you want the recipient of the news to understand how serious it is.
  • Consider the medium of delivery. If the news impacts many people, consider whether you want to deliver it to a large group (so they can hear the message at the same time) or in a smaller group setting/with individuals (so they feel more comfortable asking questions). No matter what, you certainly don’t want to deliver bad news via email!
  • Have compassion. Understand the other person’s perspective, and recognize that this news might have a bigger impact on them than you. Be respectful and take time to listen and answer questions the other party might have.

In the end, my daughter did shed some tears. After all, this was her favorite player in the universe. But the conversation wasn’t the disaster it might have been. So whether you are delivering bad news to your employees or a five-year-old, I can vouch that these key concepts can help make for a better conversation!

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