Why Giving Bad News on Projects Can Literally Hurt

Why Giving Bad News on Projects Can Literally HurtOver the years I’ve had a lot conversations with people -and quite a few experiences myself – with giving bad news. The general consensus seems to be that we all prefer a root canal without anesthesia over giving bad news. What is it about delivering bad news that makes it so tough? While everyone experiences such events differently, there is some science behind the struggle.

So consider this

Have you ever walked away from a major stakeholder meeting feeling confident everyone was aligned and enthusiastic about a new project only to learn later they hate the idea and are quietly withdrawing support even though you’re still on the hook for it? Ouch.

Remember that time when you worked so hard on a proposal, project plan, design, or research paper, and it was ripped to shreds by others? Really??? How could they not see the brilliance you slaved to create?

How did you feel when you had to tell a sponsor of a project or perhaps a loved one something you knew would likely throw the project, a team, or life into a tailspin? Need Ibuprofen and a bed. Now.

We’ve all had professional and personal situations where we’ve had to give and receive bad news. Whether you are the giver or receiver of bad news, any sentient being will feel it and in some cases literally feel it. And its mostly likely to be felt as a rejection.

I ran across a good article called Psychologists: Physical and Social Pain Hurts the Same Way which looks at how social rejection can be experienced like physical pain. Most people can vividly recount moments as children and adults where they experienced rejection or what was perceived as rejection.

Why Giving Bad News on Projects Can Literally HurtThe pain associated with those experiences can be so intense and deeply felt that the person may now have an ineffective technique when giving bad news or may simply avoid doing it at all. Researchers found that people who are more sensitive to physical pain typically experience social pain and rejection more acutely. And to add yet another twist to the findings, when these people were given Tylenol for three weeks, they experienced less emotional pain. It didnt say if giving or receiving bad news got any easier. I imagine that part doesnt change. Its just how we cope with it internally and how we manage it with others.

To understand why giving bad news can be difficult, ask yourself a few things:

  • What kind of reaction did (or does) your boss, an authority figure, or someone you care about have to bad news? How do you physically feel in response to their reaction? What helps you work past the experience so you can move towards a solution to the problem?
  • As a kid when you saw one adult giving bad news to another adult, how did they take it? Anger, withdrawal, sadness? What did that feel like to you? Good, bad, scary, threatening?
  • What does rejection mean to you? If you’re giving bad news is their response really rejection of you or are your emotions influencing your interpretation? How can you stay focused on the situation and not let the pain of delivery and their response get in the way?

Once we have insight into why we respond as we do (stomach ache, headache, anger, mean words, blame, defensiveness, withdrawal, freezing up, or pass it off to someone else), then we can get a grip on managing our internal response. This will then free us up to focus on finding solutions faster.

While giving bad news will likely sting on some level no matter how aware and prepared you are, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the situation.

  • Why Giving Bad News on Projects Can Literally HurtGet a handle on your own emotions by spending time with your response to the bad news first.
  • What you consider to bad news may not be for the receiver so check your assumptions.
  • Plan how and when you’re going to share it. Do not avoid or delay. It will only make the situation worse.
  • Accept you cant completely change the response of the receiver, but you can definitely influence it through preparation and delivery.
  • Be direct, focused, and empathetic. Line up the facts. Be prepared to share your position.
  • Give the receiver time to recover from the news. Their response is more about them and their fear, concern, etc than you.
  • Have solution recommendations on hand to facilitate next steps.

With preparation, understanding, and focus, bad news does not have to be the end of the world but instead can be an opportunity once the dust settles.


This article was first published on Mindscraping.com.

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Written by Alison Sigmon
Alison Sigmon is a longtime PMP-certified project manager, clinical therapist and business executive. She has led projects for software and user experience design; digital content strategy; brand design and development; marketing, advertising and communications strategy; business development and fundraising; video design and production; and ecommerce. Alison's efforts focus on the behavioral side of project management and relationships. Delivering Bad News in Good Ways is Alison's first book, and the first in a series on the subject. An avid distance runner, writer, hiker and traveler, Alison is a Gulf War veteran. Articles, presentations and training materials can be found at her website.

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