Bad news–nobody likes receiving it. Giving bad news can be equally troublesome, particularly when the person you’re delivering it to holds you responsible–and you’re not. It’s like when people become upset with the weather person when she forecasts a huge storm. She didn’t cause the storm, but, as is often the case, people are looking for someone to blame, so why not blame the messenger?
When you’re a planner sharing bad news with a client, you’re likely to come under fire. Like the weather person, you didn’t cause the problem. Of course, you did make suggestions that put your client in harm’s way. On the other hand, you assessed up front how much risk the client wanted to take. People often agree to take risks and then act as if they can’t believe what happened once the foreseeable bad outcome comes true.
So, what’s a planner to do when a client starts to take it out on them, the messenger?
When clients start blaming you, you now have two reasons for feeling annoyed. First, they’re blaming you for something as uncontrollable as the market. Second, they’re acting as if you never talked about risk, when you carefully did just that. You might think, “What part of risk don’t you understand?”
Of course, thinking and saying these words only fans the fires of ill will. So, here’s the first piece of advice for dealing with bad news–get over the fact that clients blame you when they have no right to do so. It’s going to happen fairly frequently. Of course, don’t accept the blame. Realize that your clients are feeling horrible and are looking to gain control of a situation that is largely uncontrollable. They want there to be someone who “caused” the problem and you just happen to be handy. To avoid responding with anger, remind yourself that these clients are under stress, and it’s your job to help them through it. This perspective will help you keep your sense of self-righteousness to a minimum.
Share the pain. When clients become angry, acknowledge their pain. Express your honest concern. “I’m sorry, this must be a big blow for you.” Don’t tell them that over the long run everything will be fine. Eventually you may want to say this, in fact, you probably will say this, but these shouldn’t be the first words out of your mouth. When someone is upset, even distraught, they want sympathy, not a lecture.
Don’t say, “I told you so.” This can be dicey. Eventually you’ll want to talk about risk and what happens as the market goes up and down, but avoid the words “I told you so” like the plague. They may be true, but nobody wants to hear them.
Actively listen. To let people know you’re listening to their concerns, don’t jump in with quick answers or corrections to their false statements. Instead, paraphrase what they just said. Do this to ensure that you know what their specific concerns are as well as to let them know that you’re being careful to understand them.
Buy time. When people hear frightening news, adrenaline is produced and they start responding with strong emotions and weak thinking. You shouldn’t move to a careful explanation of the facts until the other person is in an emotional state to do so. That’s also where active listening can help. Show concern and actively listen until the other person has calmed down enough to engage in honest dialogue.
Keep focused. Finally, remember what you want out of each conversation. Your goal is to build a healthy long-term relationship, not to win over your client or disprove his point of view. Once you’ve gotten over being blamed unfairly, shared your concerns, actively listened, and done your best to stay focused, you’ve earned the right to share your expertise.
Kerry Patterson is the author, with Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (McGraw-Hill, 2002). Available at www.investmentadvisor.com.