Reality Check: Bad News Bearers

“I know you don’t want to hear this but I have to tell you anyway.”

Do you ever say (or think) that? You believe that you need to inform somebody of something unpleasant, and they’re not going to like it.

Your recipient doesn’t want to hear it. They’ll be unhappy. They may even choose to take their displeasure out on you—the messenger! All the while, you are just trying to be responsible.

Being the bearer of bad news can be tough.

Patsy is very clear about duty, loyalty, and correct behaviour. Included in that clarity is a responsibility to visit elderly family members; she cheers them, lets them know that they are not forgotten.

Although these visits are sometimes upsetting, they are still a need-satisfying activity for Patsy. She is choosing to do what she believes is right; taking action that responds to her values.

After each visit, she reports back to the family about how everyone is doing.

Aunt Beulah isn’t doing too well. Granted, she’s getting on in years. She’s lived a good and full life. And we all know that health sometimes fails as we get older.

Patsy understands this reality and she’s ok with it. Her feelings of hurt aren’t so much a result of her visits or even the deterioration of Beulah’s health. Patsy’s distress comes from the response she receives when she passes along the news of Beulah’s downhill progression.

It’s especially hurtful when she calls Beulah’s daughter. Jess lives out of town and seldom visits. Yet instead of, “Thank you for visiting Mom” or even, “Thank you for letting me know,” Jess is more likely to give her an angry, impatient earful. “Well, what do you expect? Mom’s getting old. She’s not going to get better!”

So Patsy goes away upset, unhappy, and confused. She’s just trying to do her best, to be a kind and thoughtful person. Not only is that kindness not appreciated, but she feels attacked for simply passing along the news.

What can Patsy do? In this situation, what can Patsy control?

It’s easier to list some things she can’t control. Patsy can’t control Beulah’s health. She can’t control Jess’s response when she tells her about it, either.

However, Patsy can control whether or not she chooses to pass along the news.

It wouldn’t be very satisfying for Patsy to withhold information. It doesn’t fit her values to have important information about Beulah and not tell her daughter. (Granted, Jess could find out herself if she chose to, but that’s a different matter.)

How about this option? Instead of calling Jess and launching into a description of how badly her mother is deteriorating, first ask, “Do you want to hear how your Mom is doing?”

Jess can choose. She might say, “Thank you, but not right now.” She might say, “No, I know how she is doing.” She may simply say, “No.” That is her choice; Patsy would do well to honour it.

If Jess does say, “Yes, please,” Patsy will likely have a more pleasant conversation than if she had burst into a litany of woes without first asking if Jess wants to hear it.

Information is important. However, when we are in a position to deliver bad news, it can be worth stepping back to ask, “Do I really need to pass this along? Would it be helpful to first ask if someone wants to hear it?”

What do you think?

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