Learn better ways to deliver bad news to coworkers

Q. Sometimes, in my job, I have to say things that make people mad. You often talk about how to be diplomatic with coworkers. Is there a way to deliver bad news that doesn't annoy people?

A. No. You can make it less likely that people will be mad at you, but nothing you do will guarantee that coworkers will never be mad at you. Harry Truman was fond of saying, "I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell." The bottom line is sometimes at work you're in the unenviable position of having to speak an unpopular truth.

You're right, in my column I offer tools, techniques and strategies that make it less likely people will be mad at you: things like repeating back what people say, making it clear how giving you what you want will get a coworker what he wants, setting limits by pointing out how behaving badly will result in outcomes a coworker doesn't want, or using specific and behavioral language.

However, you can do a surgically impressive job, using every tool in your interpersonal kit, and still have a customer, boss or colleague react with anger. If you assume that you have done something badly every time a person is mad, you'll end up contributing very little. People at work who never have people mad at them usually are doing nearly nothing.

If you want an effective career, cultivate an attitude where you take other people's anger less personally. You still want to evaluate whether you could have delivered bad news better, but sometimes people really do just want to shoot the messenger.

Next time someone is upset with you ask yourself these questions:

Was there a way to have had better timing?

Could I have used more neutral language?

Did I appeal to other people's agendas?

Did I use language that was vague or specific (i.e. punctual vs. here at 8 a.m.)?

Was I careful not to use language that blamed or criticized others?

If you have done everything you know, find an interpersonal "coach." You can talk to a sophisticated friend or a professional for advice. Ask if your "coach" can see anything you could have done better. If neither you nor your coach can identify a better approach, work to be less offended by the angry reaction.

Don't assume that people who are mad at you must be ridiculous because you didn't intend to offend anyone. People only know their reactions. People generally can't read your mind and know what you meant. When others are upset with us, they're mad because of the meaning they assign to our message.

Even on good days, most of us feel personally attacked when people are annoyed with us. Go ahead and feel attacked just don't react. Next, ask yourself a powerful question: If this reaction was not about me, what theory might I form about what is going on?

Over time, if you use this theory, you'll find you are always more effective than assuming that other people's anger is all about you. Your willingness to deliver bad news and your skill in doing so means your power, persuasion and prestige at work will rise. Remember this: If you don't have any enemies, you probably aren't doing anything!

The last word(s)

Q. I repeated what a friend said at work to my boss. She ended up getting a lecture from him and a day's suspension. I really want to fix what I did, but I have no idea how. Should I just apologize?

A. No, instead tell your friend what you plan to do differently in the future and then apologize. People may return to trusting a person with a plan, but no one should trust a person who can't learn from a mistake.

(Daneen Skube, Ph.D., executive coach, trainer, therapist and speaker, also appears as the FOX Channel's "Workplace Guru" each Monday morning. She's the author of "Interpersonal Edge: Breakthrough Tools for Talking to Anyone, Anywhere, About Anything" (Hay House, 2006). You can contact Dr. Skube at http://www.interpersonaledge.com or 1420 NW Gilman Blvd., #2845, Issaquah, WA 98027. Sorry, no personal replies.)





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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