Bad News Wisdom

Sometimes, you gotta deliver bad news.

If you’re a physician, you deliver bad news a lot.

Dr. Andrew Epstein, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Center in Manhattan, leads a monthly seminar for medical students on how to dicuss bad medical news with patients and families.

I am struck by the simple wisdom of Dr. Epstein’s guidelines (The Wall Street Journal, 5/19/2015). This wisdom applies to absolutely any conversation we have.

  1. Deliver bad news in a quiet, private area.

  2. Ask what they already know about their medical situation. And ask for permission to sharae the news you have.

  3. Use silence to acknowledge emotions.

  4. Show empathy. It is OK for doctors to shed tears with their patients.

  5. Talk about next steps.


So obvious, in a way.

Be human in a professional conversation. Don’t fake the be-human part with fake-listening, fake empathy, routine platitudes.

In our rush-rush world, it is tempting to fake our way through any conversation. We create the illusion of a chat. Go through the motions. And the conversation never drops down to a human exchange.

Remove the medical setting, and here’s the wisdom that applies to any conversation.

  1. Set the stage.

Don’t assume it’s a good time to have a conversation just because you’re ready to have the conversation. Ask for permission. Even when you’re the boss. Unless it’s a final termination chat. When we ask for permission, we ease our conversation partner into the chat. We show respect. And we set the conversation up for success.

  1. Encourage silence.

In silence, we get to absorb. In silence, we get to hear our thoughts. In silence, we get know what we feel. In silence we shift from a surface exchange to a more substantial chat.

  1. Show empathy.

Get off the empathy-script. Don’t simply memorize empathetic language. Reach beyond being pleasant and poised. Connect with the part of you that is genuinely concerned for the other person’s well-being. Even if she annoys the heck out of you. Even if you don’t think he’s the brightest light in the shed. Drop down to the human level. Yes, even when the conversation gets tough

Simple guidelines. They work. I urge you to ponder the deeper question behind these guidelines:

How do I stay fully human in a professional conversation?

Your answers will enrich and enliven any conversation you have.

Enlivened conversations are a wondrous thing.