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How to Deliver Bad News That Builds Trust & Confidence


{#/pub/images/badnews.jpg}Remember the last time you hit your thumb with a hammer?  You didn’t think twice when you yelled and let the (expletive) words fly.  For a few moments you stopped thinking about the task at hand, caring who was within earshot and instinctively reacted, grabbing your thumb to stop the physical pain.


Your brain went into “survival mode” and reacted.  No thinking required.  If we had your brain hooked up to a fMRI (a technology used by neuroscientists to produce brain images in real time), we would also be able to see the physical pain center in your brain “light up” or get activated possibly even split seconds before impact.  It’s how we are wired so we can stay alive and we can’t prevent it from working (which is a good thing).


Remember the last time your boss said, “I want to see you in my office in five minutes so I can give you some feedback on the proposal you wrote” or “it’s time for your annual evaluation” or your boss criticized you in a staff meeting in front of others?  Those words, the tone in which they were delivered, your interpretation of the assumed meaning (and implications your brain makes up as to what’ll happen next) leave a mark, just like that hammer did to your thumb.  For just a few moments, minutes or hours or days, the social pain center in your brain “lit up.”  Ouch!  Can you guess where the social pain center is in your brain?  Yes, right next to the physical pain center.  In fact, your brain doesn’t differentiate between a physical pain (hammer) and a social pain (criticism or judgment or words like “feedback”) which trigger the social pain center.


Because emotions are contagious, as the boss, our own social pain center lights up when we have to give negative information to one of our team.  We will work just as hard to avoid giving someone else bad news so that we can avoid the painful experience of conflict or disappointment, even if we are the giver and not the receiver of bad news.  Thank your social brain, even if you are the boss.


So how can you leverage the power of your social brain to create positive connections with your team instead of leaving scars?


Here’s how you can offer negative information so that someone can hear it, consider it and take action with a positive attitude instead of resentment:


3 Steps to Offer Feedforward vs Feedback


1. Start with the positive.  


Describe one or two recent actions related to the project or situation that the person is doing right and well.  Be specific about what they did or are doing and the difference it made for you, the team or the company.  Find the positive, even if you have to look really hard.  Use a genuine and authentic tone, keep your eyebrows up.  Be honest and avoid using a cheerleading or patronizing inflection in your tone.  Our brain has an automatic bull**** detector and will immediately trigger the “mistrust” button in your employee, who will then stop listening to you. 


2. Get permission to offer input with a question.  


For example, "Would it be all right to give you some information I hope will be helpful for you?" Of course, they'll say 'yes' especially if you are the boss, but the point is you are looking for a 'head nod' which indicates they are listening, and more open to hearing the information.  Use the word “I” five times for every time you use the word “You.”  Trust me on this (or read the post on Lizard Brain for more information).


3. Ask a future-oriented question.   


"What are your thoughts about a solution/your next steps/how you can make it right?" Now you are separating the person from the behavior, engaging their brain into thinking about action and the future, rather than leaving them feeling judged or criticized.  


Assume and act as though you have hired intelligent people who are capable of finding solutions.  Even if you don’t believe they are capable at times, acting as if they are will get you farther than treating people like they are idiots (and if you think you are good at hiding this, you are not).


If you start with the positive, use the emotion of curiosity and believe that mistakes aren't a sign of failure, but an opportunity to learn together…you can gather information, find solutions and adjust course accordingly. Your team will be more open and might even begin to look forward to those kinds of conversations.  As a result, they will be inspired to go forward with enthusiasm and get more done. And who knows, you might even learn how to love this part of your job instead of dread it!



{#/pub/images/Christina_Haxton.jpg}Written by Christina Haxton, MA LMFT  Speaker, Author & Executive Coach, Sustainable Leadership, Inc. Co-author, The Character-Based Leader: Instigating a leadership revolution one person at a time.  Christina assists entrepreneurs, managers and executives how to quickly build trust with their team and feel happier, highly successful and satisfied in their leadership role. Her clients learn how to use  neuroscience of emotional intelligence to make powerful team connections to become successful leaders, to achieve extraordinary peace of mind, begin to really love what they do again and have fun in the process!



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