As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew I was going to regret what I was saying. Unfortunately, I let my emotions get ahead of my brain, and the words came flowing out like a spear heading right for the heart of the unfortunate “victim” of my wrath.
You’ve likely been there yourself. Under most circumstances, you would consider yourself to be a reasonable, calm person, able to have a respectable dialog with the person who just delivered some bad news. But occasionally time and pressure become the enemy, and the chance to really let someone know how you feel just takes over.
I can’t explain it, but it happens. Psychiatrist Carl Jung, the famous Swiss Psychiatrist, said that every person has a “shadow”, an unconscious part of the person that the ego does not identify with. According to Jung, this “shadow” is the sometimes less desirable aspects of your personality, and tends to show up in times of stress. Sometimes my shadow just doesn’t do me any justice!
I had just such an incident a few years ago. In this case, it wasn’t so much bad news, but a persistent sales person who was merely following the direction of her supervisor. Despite my multiple attempts to let her know that I wasn’t interested in her product and offer, she continued to press me for a meeting and I eventually succumbed. However, after the meeting, I indicated my continued lack of interest, and hoped that would be the end of the conversation.
Unfortunately for her, it wasn’t. The next day, I received a call from the sales person asking if I wouldn’t reconsider, and that her boss wanted to be sure I was really not interested. It was at that moment that my internal dialog took control.
While I’m ashamed to admit it now, I really let this young lady have it. I was tired of the persistence, felt sure that I had been clear with her on multiple occasions, and now she was pestering me again. To top it off, she called me on my cell phone in the car, and I wasn’t able to “screen” the call. It was a day I regretted.
After I hung up with her, I had a chance to calm down and rethink my approach. While I was sure that I had done what I should have in setting expectations with her during the sales cycle, yelling at the sales person just wasn’t what a leader should do. As soon as I got where I could talk, I called her back.
It was in that discussion that I was back to my rational, professional demeanor. We discussed my concern with her repeated attempts to sell to me, and it was then that I found out that her boss was pressuring her, and making her concerned for her job. In many ways, this wasn’t her fault, it was her boss’. She didn’t necessarily want to call back, but she was afraid for her job, and her boss was pressing her.
I hope that you’ve never experienced the feeling I had that day after I hung up with the sales person. But, if it hasn’t happened yet, it could. As a leader, we should do all we can to remain in control, and make sure that every interaction is professional. In this case, I have no idea what damage I might have done to this young ladies future career in sales. I didn’t want my bad day to affect her long term.
So, what can you do when someone is delivering bad news, pestering you, or just generally making you mad? How do you keep from ’Shooting the Messenger’ and maintain your composure?
- Be Prepared – Never, ever, deal with an unpleasant situation that you haven’t prepared for. One of the best things you can do is actually rehearse the potential conversation, think through what might be said, and practice your responses. This includes practicing your demeanor and language. A sure way to lose your cool when someone delivers bad news is to let it catch you off guard. If it’s a bad day, and taking an unexpected call would only make the day worse, don’t answer! Be sure you are in a good state of mind before you take an unexpected meeting or call.
- Pause – In my recent situation, I know I didn’t even let the sales person finish her sentence before I was already launching in to my thought process. One of the best ways to make sure you don’t lose your cool is to actually pause before you speak. Sometimes, the pause itself sends a strong enough message, and it will give you the moment you need to collect yourself. One of my favorite sayings is an old saying that goes “Speak only when you an improve upon the silence.”
- Breathe – One of the body’s natural responses to stress is to increase your respiration. You start to breath faster, and more shallow as your body tries to get more oxygen into your system. It’s doing this in response to the potential need to either ‘fight’ or ‘flee’. One of the physical techniques to reduce your stress, and calm down the additional stress hormones that are flowing through your body is to breathe deeply, and slowly. That act alone will reduce your desire to lash out at whomever is in front of you.
- Ask Questions – Not only should you take the time to ask the person delivering the news clarifying questions, you should also be having an internal dialog about the person themselves. Are they just a messenger? Are they acting in a way that any rational human being would act, or are they being irrational, and thus might give you reason to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’? How would you expect you to respond to the news being delivered? All of these questions might have helped me take a few more minutes to better understand the situation, and not react the way I did.
- Be professional, or take a break – Ultimately, how you respond as a leader says a great deal about you as a person, and you as a leader. Those that you lead are always looking at you, and judging your ability to lead them. If your reactions aren’t measured and reasonable, they are immediately asking themselves how you might react to them someday. If being rational and professional just isn’t in the cards that day, take a break. Tell the person you are happy to talk to them at another time, but you need some time to process what they have told you, or would like a more detailed explanation later. Whatever you do, don’t let your emotions get in front of your mouth like I did.
We’re all human, and we can expect to meet with bad news every now and then. But, as a leader, we are expected to operate to a different standard, and we need to make sure that we can always maintain our composure and professionalism.
The risk you run by not following this advice is to hurt not only the person you are interacting with, but your reputation as well. Remember, don’t shoot the messenger!
Have you ever had a situation where you ‘shot the messenger’ and later regretted it? What did you learn from the situation?
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