The chiropractor looked at me and said, “I hate to give bad news. But the truth is your back issues mean you’ll be in pain for the rest of your life.”
Then she proceeded to explain what the x-rays showed.
It didn’t matter. My brain had left the building …
As leaders, we face telling people things they’d rather not hear. This makes us anxious.
Many times—to calm ourselves (as well as our attorneys)—we take a clinical approach. We stick to the facts. We tell ourselves that this gives us distance and perspective.
What it actually does is make us look like unfeeling jerks.
Back to the Doctor’s Office …
Did the doctor I saw know her stuff? Sure. But it took her a while to notice I had tears streaming down my face. Then she stood there looking uncomfortable.
I had to ask for a box of tissues (there were none in her office). Then she returned—with a single one—and asked if I wanted to sit down.
Two thoughts ran through my head: “Am I not supposed to cry more than one tissue’s worth?” and “Is she afraid I might fall down and cause a liability issue?”
How can we do a better job with our people?
#1: Know You Can’t Wing It
It’s true. This doctor didn’t have a lot of time between seeing the x-rays and seeing me. But she must have had at least a minute or two. She could have answered a few questions:
1. What’s my relationship to this person?
2. What are the most important things she needs to know?
3. How will she likely react to the news?
4. How can I help her get through this moment?
#2: Know What’s Going on in Their Brains
I was in amygdala hijack—so lost 2/3rds of my brain (the emotional and human parts). I wasn’t able to make any decisions or create plans based on what the doctor was sharing. But she continued to plow through her facts as if I could.
Your people may lose their minds, too. If you see they’re in distress, know these are the three most powerful things you can do to help them start to get their brains back:
1. Ask them to breathe deeply. Have them inhale (for five seconds, for example) and then exhale for twice that time (10 seconds). This will help them calm themselves and get more centered in their bodies.
2. Ask them to close their eyes. Most people are visual learners. Their brains already are on overload. Cutting down on the visual stimulation flooding their systems will help.
3. Ask them, “What are you feeling right now?” The phrase is “name it to tame it.” Most of the time, people will be able to tell you they are afraid. Or hurt. Or sad. Or mad. This helps them start to win back their emotional brain—and gives you a hint at how to best deal with them. (You’ll treat an angry person differently than a frightened one.)
#3: Know You Can’t Always Fix Things
Often there is nothing you can do to make things better. This doctor was not going to fix my back in the next 18 visits we had scheduled. In those moments, the best thing you can do is be a witness to what someone is going through.
If she had been able to say, “I know this isn’t what you were hoping to hear, and you must feel overwhelmed. Let’s just sit here together for a while. Take as long as you need. And when you’re ready, you can ask me anything you want. Or, if you want me to call someone to be here with us, we can do that.”
Instead, she told me to go into the chiropractic studio and finish my exercises, and then she would adjust me. Being in shock, that’s what I did. And was embarrassed every time someone saw my tears.
Make a Better Choice
Here’s the upshot. I’m never returning—especially after the doctor said, “Just keep coming back, and we’ll do what we can.” I’ve found another doctor who has a lot more social and emotional intelligence to work with me.
Don’t hide behind facts to get you through a tough talk. Be human. You’ll find it’s the best way to help other people cope—and you’ll feel better about yourself, too.
Great insight, too bad you had to experience it – but you are so right. We should pay attention to how we deliver bad news, or any message that is hurtful or could cause pain. Thanks for your examples of how to do it better.
As a high-functioning autistic person, I sometimes have communication issues. This article is valuable. I’ve really screwed the pooch delivering very bad news a couple of times this year.
I also hope your back has improved with the new doctor. If you are still in pain, there may be modalities to mitigate that. Perhaps yoga? Meditation? Just throwing that out there. I’m sure you have researched and considered ways to make your situation better.