I once listened to a coaching client describe (vent), in great detail, the multitude of deficiencies of one of their direct reports. This wasn’t the first time this topic had come up in our conversations, so I knew it was more than a “sore spot” for the frustrated leader. Bad news was more than simmering.

This time they meant business.

It was apparent that the “plan of attack” had been refined and rehearsed to ensure that nothing could dislodge the “facts.” Every objection covered, all evidence compiled, I even got a little rattled as my client grew more incensed.

But even hurricanes take a breather. Once the wall of my client’s fury yielded to an "eye" of tranquility, I asked: “Do you think this individual knows how disappointed you are?”

“Absolutely!” my client proclaimed. “There’s no way they can deny it.”

“And how do you think they feel about this?” I asked.

“I can’t see how they could feel anything but shameful” was the reply.

“So, let me get this straight. You intend to deliver negative feedback to someone that already knows they’re falling short of expectations? And, they feel badly about it?”

My client’s shoulders dropped and their once riveting eye contact broke off as they gazed toward the floor. It was obvious where I was going.

To meet the obvious, if regrettable, expectation, I continued, “Why don’t you start your conversation with them by simply asking, ‘How do you feel?’”

“I get it,” they replied softly, “And if I ask in that manner, they’ll probably talk about the performance problems I’ve been ready to unload on them?”

Probably so.

How many times has someone crammed something down your throat that you already knew? What was your reaction?

The great detectives -- Columbo, for example, use riveting questions to tell of their knowing, “Oh, oh, oh, … just one more thing, ma’am. If you weren’t at the scene of the murder of your husband, then how is it that your beloved and loyal guard dog, Gunter, isn’t it, never barked? You see, your neighbors were recording a Youtube video on mindless tranquility at the exact time of your husband’s murder. He pleaded for his life – it’s on the tape – but, Gunter? No, Gunter never barked. Not a whimper.”

The same strategy is employed by the great lawyers, like - Perry Mason. “In closing, I ask the jury, ‘why would anyone actually go ‘coo-coo for coco-puffs?”

Let the jury connect the last dots. It’s far more powerful, psychologically, to come to one’s own conclusion (as it seems) than to have it shoved down their throat.

And the target of question or criticism? They know more than you’ve prepared for. (Incidentally, research proves that punishment is reinforcing to the punisher, so don’t believe your parents' claims through your childhood, “this is going to hurt me more than you.” B.S.) Besides, going into the conversation with “both guns loaded,” will only invoke defense. And this usually doesn’t end well.

Find that moment of tranquility when preparing to enter a tough conversation. Is it possible that other/others know what you’re about to say or do concerning their behavior? If so, ask yourself, “Am I really teaching them a lesson?” or “Am I actually reinforcing my ego?”

Bad news needn’t be badly delivered. It’s usually not news, anyway.

(Favorable comments, only, please)

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance.

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