Imagine your spouse calls you to say, “I lost my job.”
What are the first words out of your mouth? Do you blurt out, “Oh god, what are we going to do for money?” Or do you pause, and think about how your spouse feels in this moment?
If you’re like most people, a spouse losing their job is panic inducing. It’s natural to worry about how you’re going to pay your bills.
Your natural first thought is how will we pay our bills. But just because that’s your first thought doesn’t mean it has be your first words.
Put yourself in your spouse’s shoes; imagine you lost your job. You’re scared, humiliated, and likely angry. When you tell your spouse, which reaction would you prefer? How are we going to pay the mortgage? Or, “Oh baby, I’m so sorry, tell me all about it.”
The person who lost their job already feels terrible. They’re likely in full throttle panic. Adding more shame and fear won’t make things better. There will be plenty of time for shared panic in the coming days. In that critical moment – when the person first shares the bad news – what they need most is support.
The first words out of your mouth will be what they remember most. You can make the person feel loved, or can leave them feeling alone.
When someone shares bad news, it’s natural to think first about how it will impact you. But again, the first thing you think doesn’t have to be the first thing you say.
This principle applies at work as well. Imagine your sale rep calls and tells you she lost the big deal you were counting on to make the quarter. Do you immediately blast her with, “No way, you lost it? This is awful, we needed that deal.”
Or do you empathize with their loss, “Oh geeze, I’m so sorry. I know you were counting on it. What happened?”
The deal is already lost. Even if you can save it, 3 minutes on the phone with your rep won’t make a difference. The question in that moment is, how do you want your employee to feel? If they’re a low performer and you’re already frustrated, letting them know you’re angry is appropriate. But if the person is a valued team member, who simply had something go the wrong way, shaming and blaming them is not going to improve their performance in the future. Nor will it improve their alliance with you.
Good performers hate failure, and they really hate having to tell their boss they failed. You may be thinking, “Oh crap, how am I going to tell my boss?” Again, your first thoughts do not need to be your first words.
Job losses and lost deals are high stakes situations, the same dynamic plays out in lesser circumstances. Your kid dings up the car, your coworker erases the file, your neighbor’s tree swings the wrong way and falls onto your garage. We’ve all seen that person who gets bad news, tenses up, acts like it’s a calamity and makes everyone around them feel worse. It’s never helpful.
When someone confesses a problem or mistake to you, the best thing you can do in that moment is empathize and connect. Deal with the person first, the problem second.
The people you care about will thank you.