“A word carries far — very far — deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space.” – Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim, 1900)
It’s a tried-and-true business rule that you should always deliver bad news in person. But now that we are fully entrenched in the world of e-mail, it is a rule that is broken every single day.
It is so easy to say the wrong thing when you write it down, because there is a natural temptation to be firm and definitive. And if you are upset with something or objecting to something, it is easy to take what you consider to be a subtle shot. But the worse thing about written communication is that it is unilateral. You can say whatever you want to (you can’t be interrupted), but you can’t see the other person’s eyes. This is a big disadvantage, especially when you’re talking about something bad, uncomfortable, or complicated.
When you deliver difficult news in person, you can read the other person’s body language and make appropriate adjustments in what you’re saying. When you are discussing a tricky proposal or contract, you can stop to clarify misunderstandings or to shed more light on issues of concern.
And that’s not to mention the benefits of a back-and-forth exchange: You begin to explain your position. You are interrupted, politely. The other person quickly shows you that you don’t have all the information – or points out that you misunderstood something – or sometimes simply gives you a better idea.
Many times, I have entered into a discussion absolutely sure of my point of view — only to be won over to the other person’s position in a matter of minutes. (If you are open-minded and have success as your objective, this happens quite often.)
Communicating troublesome information in writing is a problem, because it can cause misunderstandings. It almost always takes much longer than necessary and it can sometimes damage a relationship permanently.
So when you can, make an appointment to meet the other person for lunch. Or get up from your chair and take a walk across the office. Sit down and look into his or her eyes. And before you say one word, smile.
When you can’t deliver bad news in person, take these precautions:
1. If you are upset about something, try NOT to respond to it for at least 24 hours. This is especially important with e-mail, where you can knock off a snotty response as quickly as you can throw a shoe.
2. If you simply MUST vent, write your response as quickly as you can, getting all the bad stuff out of your system. Then delete it.
3. When you really respond, make sure that what you write advances your objective. Stay close to the simple facts and make positive statements. This is especially important when you are in troubled waters.
4. Finally, try never to say “never.” It’s better to move to an absolute position gradually. More often than not, you will discover an acceptable compromise along the way.[Ed. Note. Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]