We Can Respond To Bad News Better

He’s an international student who came to Canada to develop his skills. Because tuition for international students is much higher than native born Canadians, he had to get a job. I see this individual on a somewhat weekly basis whenever I grocery shop.

He wears a shiny black suit jacket.

He’s a genuinely great guy and he dedicated a lot of time to the grocery chain that hired him. Loblaws.

But now, his hours are getting cut. His pay is getting cut. There are no “summer deals” to convince people to sign up for the credit cards he’s pitching. For days, he’s made little to no sales.

The company overall isn’t helping.

And he’s looking for a new job.

I stood there in disbelief, wanting to say something about his plight, but I struggled a bit.

I’m frustrated about companies using these kinds of tactics. I’ve already dealt with some form of it with me looking for work and apparently no one wanting to hire someone with years of experience.

But getting tongue tied, fumbling over our words, or struggling to say anything about these struggles is part of the course. We can sympathize and empathize with these people. But in terms of actual help we fumble.

I changed the subject by telling him I’d text him more often and offered to go out for a drink some day this week since I’ve been putting that off for months now. That helped a bit, but I could’ve done way more.

We’ve all had these moments and I can’t blame myself or you. We have a tendency to do those kinds of things in crucial moments in our relationships with our partners, co-workers, or friends.

We’re just bad at responding to bad news or the plights of other people.

But we can be better about it.

Begin With The Right Words To Bad News

Jenny Dreizen is an etiquette expert and co-founder of Fresh Starts Registry. It’s a website that offers a wide variety of scripts that guide people through moments that leave you paralyzed on what to say. Sharing bad news is unpleasant, of course, but the boiler plate responses that follow up make matters worse and simply changing what you’re telling people can make a difference.

Some prime examples of phrases to begin with are:

  • The disappointment is so real. I’m here to validate that for you.
  • Please remember to keep breathing. One breath at a time.
  • How is this landing for you?
  • Remember that rejection is a part of life, and it does not define your worth. Keep pushing forward, a better opportunity is waiting for you.
  • We will figure this out together.
  • I’ll check up on you to let you know I’m thinking about you. You don’t need to respond. I’d like you to know I’m here for you.

The issue with many words of encouragement is that they can be either dismissive or empty, depending on certain circumstances. Finding out you have cancer is a big deal, but it can hurt if people comment about being thankful doctors found it early.

Even if those words were well meaning, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the comments were empty and provided no help whatsoever to the bad news.

Responding to bad news begins with conveying that you care about what is happening to that person. To be checking up on them.

If you want to be encouraging, make it more actionable through questions like “what do you plan to do?” or better yet….

Offer Direct Assistance

“What can I do to help you?”

A simple question but it can mean all the world to people. This is mostly why I changed the subject with the student I was talking to. One is because he proposed we go out for a drink a long time ago and I put it off until now. The other was perhaps spending time with someone else for a change of pace could help.

You see, offering help doesn’t have to be purely financial. We’re emotional creatures and there are tons of ways to lift our spirits. We’ve all got various problems as well with each one being easier based on who’s in our corner.

So make a point of communicating that you’re in their corner.

What this looks like can vary to people, but generally, being there for someone is:

  • Not trying to fix their problem, unless they specifically asked for your help.
  • Avoid offering unsolicited advice.
  • Avoid using other people’s (or your own stories) about what they’re going through and what you or they did to solve the problem.

In other words, offer help if asked. Other than that, communicate that you are there for them should they need it and get them to focus forward. Questions help a lot in that regard:

  • What’s your plan moving forward?
  • Are you going to be okay?

Being in someone’s corner and letting them know via direct assistance like this can make a big difference.

Never Let Up

While we are social creatures that naturally help other people grow, we also have a tendency to leave after some time. When people are struggling, we have this natural compulsion to “move on” and “let it go”.

After we think someone’s problems are solved, we move on and continue with our normal lives. We see this a lot in self-help, where self-help gurus tend to offer the same piece of advice for years despite new understanding and nuances of these problems.

It leads to gurus being out of touch with the times.

And the same thing can happen to those of us who move on past those we’ve offered to help a few times.

Depending on the situation, some people need regular attention and check ups. It’s nice to be checking up and helping someone after they went through a messy divorce or loss of a loved one.

But scars from bad news like that can be incredibly deep and take years to recover even.

The gestures don’t need to be incredible every time. A simple drop-in and check up can be significant. The point is to do this often enough.

Between natural tendencies and human behaviour, we can be pretty bad or incensitive about helping other people. It’s understandable given the bevy of unhelpful advice most gurus offer to people.

They are humans after all.

But unlike so many out of touch gurus, doing those three simple things for those we genuinely care about (or want to care about) can make a difference. After all, showing we care about someone is about being present, actively supporting them and letting them know you’re there, and consistently reminding them of that.

I’m sure they know. But they’re going to be appreciative of it every time.

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