They Are Not Going To Be Happy

By: Lynn Carnes

In the last several months, I have had a series of difficult conversations. What made them difficult for me was this: I was afraid that the other person would be unhappy as a result of the conversation. To some degree or other, I was delivering “bad news”, and just that characterization set me off into “I-don’t-want-to-have-this-conversation-land.”

For almost every leader I’m working with right now, that is familiar territory. Whether delivering the “bad news” of budget cuts, unwelcome mergers, constricting regulations, or failed business deals, they are leading people through change that they would rather not have to do.

Often, no one wants the change – yet they have to lead through it.

Just the thought of delivering bad news can send people into one of two reactive roles. The first is placating. I know this one well. When I go to placating, you get the power to negotiate all kinds of concessions from me. When I’m playing “Patty Placator”, my stance is “Please don’t cry – here, have a lollipop.

The second is to disregard. When I go into disregard, you will get the message loud and clear that I don’t care about you, what this news means, or how you are impacted. When I’m playing “Debbie Disregard”, my stance is “Get over it.”
Both of these stances are great – for making me not have to deal with emotions of the situation. Neither will lead to real change. Why? Because both let the other person off the hook. If I give you a “lollipop” to make you happy, you get to keep rocking along as is. No change required. If I disregard how my news is impacting you, you are justified in fighting the change, either above or underground.

It’s difficult to envision another path. How do you both care about how your news is impacting someone and still move things forward?

It takes practice, self-awareness and wisdom to stay on the “change tightrope” and move things forward without resorting to tactics designed to keep you and everyone else comfortable.

Change is not comfortable and neither is delivering unwelcome news.

Several years ago, we spent the day on the lake with two sets of friends who had young children. One of the families brought along a puppy they were helping find a home. I smelled trouble early on, because the kids from the other family quickly fell in love with the puppy. As the day wore on, I started thinking that this puppy might have found his new home. Also, in the back of my mind, I was wondering “are they really going to take this puppy on their 7 hour drive home?”

The drama came to a head when we dropped the first family off. The big question was this: would the puppy go with the original family or stay on the boat to go home with his new favorite children? “Please Mom, please, can we keep him?” echoed over and over again.

That was when I witnessed the change tightrope in action more clearly than I ever had until that point. The mom gently looked at her kids and said “No.” All kinds of wailing and moaning and begging could be heard across the water. They were SO upset. I’m waiting for her to tell us to go back and get the puppy. (I would have gone back to get the puppy.)
She didn’t yell, tell them to shut up, capitulate or explain. She simply circled her arms calmly around both kids and let them cry it out on the short ride back to their boathouse. By the time we pulled up, the eyes were dry and the children moved on.
When I reflected on the incident, I realized that she helped those kids accept that they would not get what they wanted by deeply embodying her decision. She left no room for argument yet she still stayed connected to their pain. She was ok within herself with them not being happy. This is an incredibly difficult balancing act.

It’s so tempting to…
…explain – we don’t have enough room in the car
…or capitulate – ok, we can have the puppy
…or yell – are you crazy?, we don’t need a puppy
…or tell them to shut up – I don’t want to hear it
…or do any of the other actions we develop to avoid feeling uncomfortable.

​This mom tolerated her discomfort to support the right decision and by doing so, ultimately helped the children accept that decision.

When we are under pressure to lead in situations where people are not doing to be happy, we need good strategies for managing our discomfort as well as theirs. Here are some tips I’ve found useful over the years:

  • Make the distinction between the angst and actions.  Allow the angst and insist on the action.
  • Ask people to help you solve difficult issues; keep a two-way dialogue going
  • Be smart about stopping work that is no longer needed; get help prioritizing if you need it
  • Make clear requests of people; be transparent and specific about your standards for a given project/task
  • Listen for the promise to deliver after you have made a request; don’t accept “I’ll try”, when you need the promise for “yes”.
  • Leave room for negotiation and the answer “no”.  (Without the freedom to decline, there is no true “yes”)
  • Let people BMW (Bitch, moan and whine) as long as they ALSO deliver on their promises and meet their goals
  • Have a conversation quickly when it looks like a breakdown may happen; it’s easier to correct a small issue than have the conversation when things have gone badly awry
  • Have the difficult conversations early when people miss a target or milestone; be both empathetic and insistent
  • Celebrate completion and show true appreciation for a task well done

​What is your favorite strategy to avoid your own discomfort? (I go back and forth between placating and capitulating) How do you deal with delivering bad news? What practices do you have to keep your inner strength in place for moments like this? Where have you compromised relationships because it was easier to cut the other person off rather than tolerate the discomfort of disagreement? What conversations are you having right now that involve delivering bad news or have high stakes?

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Photo Credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>witthaya / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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