When Delivering Bad News (Issue 880)

In which we are encouraged to provide personal touch and clear up suspense when we deliver bad news.

So, I was sitting with a friend over a gentle beer when he looked up and said, “I got a letter from my doctor.”

Often, that’s not a start to a good story.  “What did he or she say?”, I asked.

He pulled a letter from his briefcase.

“The word, ‘severe’, appears several times in the letter. The doctor was looking at my back and hips. And the letter says, ‘Severe worsening of the degenerative changes in the lower lumbar spine with disc space narrowing and spurring.’ Or another one I loved, ‘There is degenerative scoliosis and severe degenerative changes with loss of intervertebral disc height at numerous levels.’”

I was silent for a few moments and then said, “Oh, ho! So, you’re shrinking.”

Silence, came his stern reply. “How did you feel about reading that?”, I then asked.

“My immediate response was, ‘Mayday, Mayday, I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die.’”

“Sounds like you had a pretty strong reaction to the letter.”

“Yes, I did. It really scared me. I had no idea this was coming.”

In the banking, legal, consulting, or accounting worlds, this would be like telling a client that you had discovered that one of client’s business partners had been stealing money from the company in amounts significant enough to compromise the business. (Maybe the reaction to that would be a little stronger than what I’ve described in this conversation and you get the idea.) It’s a big upset!

“What would you have wanted, instead of the letter?”

“Well, I suppose two things. First, call me and walk me through it rather than sending a letter with no warning two weeks after the X-rays. Possibly, beginning with, ‘you’re going to be fine and there are some findings I’d like to share with you.’ Give me a little reassurance to start. And then, after delivering the news, move into, ‘here are some things I think you could do to address these findings.’ Basically, he told me, ‘You have trouble; have a nice day.’”

Usually, we don’t have to deliver devastating news. However, when we DO need to deliver bad news, a good lesson: Call them, reassure them, deliver the findings, and finish with steps to address the problem. Don’t leave people hanging in suspense.

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