Steven Gaffney’s Communication Blog

Effectively Deliver Bad News


Effectively Deliver Bad News

Sharing bad news and difficult information is part of everyday life. The key is to proactively share such information before the other party discovers it. In the end, people usually find out the truth. Therefore, honest communication is critical to establishing credibility and trust, which in turn affects teamwork, productivity, profitability, and long-term success. Honest communication is the way we gain and keep the trust of our customers, potential clients, co-workers, and staff, as well as our family and friends. You can tell how open and trustworthy a relationship is by how willing someone is to share things that are difficult but important to hear.

When it’s time to share bad news and difficult information, keep in mind three excuses to avoid and four techniques for effectively delivering the message.

Three Excuses to Avoid

1. “It was not my job.”

That rationale may seem okay, but it usually upsets the other person and makes you look like you are not a team player. After all, even if it was not your job, couldn’t you have taken action and done something to help? History is filled with successful people who seized the moment and took charge.

2. “No one told me.”

If this is the case, the question to ask is, “Why?” Did you create an environment in which people are afraid to tell you difficult information?

3. “Everyone agreed with me.”

Just because everyone agreed with you does not let you off the hook for the outcome. After all, we tend to surround ourselves with people who think like us. Also, psychologists who study group dynamics report that people who don’t think like the group tend to be alienated, left out, or even fired from their jobs. Just because everyone agrees with you does not mean you were right. In the 1400s, people thought the world was flat, but their collective thoughts didn’t make it so.
Four Techniques for Effectively Delivering the Message

1. Deliver it immediately.

Bad news about us is better coming from our own mouths than from someone else’s. If someone else discovers our bad news before we divulge it, it undermines their trust in us, and they may begin to wonder what else we’re hiding.

2. Take 100 percent responsibility for your actions.

Remember, no one makes us do anything. We choose our actions for a variety of reasons. Great leaders and great coaches take responsibility for their team’s actions as well as their own. When they take such responsibility, their fans usually receive any news favorably. Despite Ronald Reagan’s popularity as president, he started slipping in the polls during the Iran-Contra affair until he took full responsibility for what transpired. Once he took responsibility, his popularity rose again.

3. Get ahead of the curve on bad information.

If the future looks bleak or more bad information is possible, find out as much as you can and share it as quickly as possible before someone else discovers it. Years ago, tainted Tylenol killed people, yet the company survived the crisis in part because company officials quickly and openly shared what they knew with the public.

4. Take immediate and widespread action to correct the situation.

This will help prevent erosion of trust, because people will feel more secure when they hear and witness that someone is doing something about the situation. Unfortunately, organizations often take a reactive wait-and-see approach — only to have the situation worsen. One organization I worked with waited to take care of their financial woes until they were forced to proceed with massive layoffs. The employees who remained became skeptical and lost trust that the situation would be reversed, so they started to seek employment elsewhere. How we respond to mistakes defines us. Consider the Tylenol example again. The company immediately pulled all the potentially deadly products off store shelves. They did not wait to be forced to take action; they proactively told the public what their company was doing to correct the situation and prevent further accidents.
No one likes to share bad information, but doing so honestly is imperative to maintaining the bond of trust. Trust is the foundation of all relationships, and honest communication is the key to developing and building the relationships we desire.

Embracing Mistakes

We all get stuck sometimes, but nothing is much more frustrating than making the same mistake again and again. When that happens, feelings of failure can set in and further derail us. But recognizing that mistakes can ultimately propel us forward can be just what we need to release ourselves from the mistake trap.

One key to getting unstuck is to recognize that blaming others for our mistakes is a lie that not only traps us but dooms us to repeat our mistakes. Instead we need to really look at what’s happening, take responsibility, and apologize. The good news is that the more we accept responsibility, the better off we are. Change is possible as soon as we recognize our mistakes. It’s critical to not be in denial about our own fallibility. The quicker we can do this, the better off we are.

If you look at your life you probably can see how you’ve grown from your mistakes. In fact, I would say most pivotal points in your life originate from mistakes. So why are we so slow to recognize and admit our mistakes to ourselves?

I gave a speech when I was starting my career over twenty years ago, and the speech was so bad that people got up and left. They were unforgiving about it. They just left.

I took a look at it, and of course I was incredibly embarrassed so I did the very first thing: I apologized to my customer. She was great about it. I actually offered to give back the money and she said, “No, no, no. It wasn’t that bad.” And then I went home and sulked for three days.

When I stopped sulking I realized that if I studied what happened, I could actually correct the situation. That speech—which is on honest communication—has now turned into one of the top speeches I give across the world. If I hadn’t accepted responsibility, I would have never grown. We grow by mistakes not by successes.

The reason I didn’t get stuck in the mistake of that terrible speech is that I accepted responsibility. Next, I looked at the lessons, and then I created a plan to correct the situation. Seeing the lesson isn’t enough. You have to formulate a plan and implement it; otherwise history will repeat itself.

In the case of my speech I realized that I didn’t know much about group dynamics and I hadn’t studied the audience. As a result I studied group dynamics, and with some help I developed a way to learn about the audience. That enabled me to adjust my content as appropriate. That’s one example of what I learned from my mistake and a plan I implemented to address the issue.

One place where people commonly make mistakes is in hiring. If you make a bad hire, what can you do? You look at what you missed in the interview and how you can better detect that in the future. Acknowledging your error is the first step. Be honest with yourself first.

I am thankful for that terrible speech I gave more than twenty years ago, because I didn’t get stuck there. My mistake taught me a lot about honesty with myself and about addressing errors. It helped to propel me to where I am today. Don’t hide from your mistakes or pretend they don’t exist. Embrace them as teachers and you won’t be doomed to repeat them.

What to Do When You Make a Mistake


The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “Success does not consist in never making mistakes, but in never making the same one a second time.” I could not agree more. Mistakes are inevitable, but history should not repeat itself. Through almost 20 years of working with corporations, associations, government agencies, and the military, I have found that executives and leaders are usually understanding when a mistake happens but will not overlook it when the same errors happen again and again. Fortunately, there are three simple steps to ensure history stays in the past where it belongs.


Step 1: Just Be Honest—Own the Mistake Immediately and Fully

Research from the University of Michigan and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that doctors who admit to their mistakes and apologize are far less likely to be sued for malpractice than those who don’t do so. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Things change when someone comes to you and says, “I really messed up. Will you forgive me?” Somehow, a genuine apology is disarming. It begins the process of repairing trust and respect.

For this reason, you must own your mistakes. Although it’s a terrible feeling to have to admit an error, the quickest way through these painful circumstances is to acknowledge the mistake and take responsibility. In fact, I would say it’s actually good news when you are the one responsible for a mistake because you can change you. If a mistake is out of your control, it forces you to wait and hope that others will make the necessary changes, which feels like being stuck in the back seat. I prefer to be in the driver’s seat myself, even if that means a mistake is mine. That way, I can learn, grow, and change—and prevent the mistake from happening again.

You can own up to mistakes on an individual level, but you can also do this on behalf of your division or organization. Customers need to hear apologies when they are necessary. I am not suggesting that you take sole responsibility and say that something was your fault when it wasn’t. However, if you are a part of a team or division that messed up, you can step in and apologize. If an external customer deserves an apology, simply say, “On behalf of my organization, I am sorry.” Be straightforward and don’t ever say, “I am sorry you feel that way.” If you plan on saying that, you might as well just not apologize at all. For more strategies on what to say when you make a mistake and need to apologize, please see our booklet “21 Rules for Delivering Difficult Messages.” The bottom line? Take full responsibility whenever you can, say you are sorry, and then move on to Step 2.


Step 2: Evaluate and Share the Lesson Learned

In the context of an apology, it can be helpful to share what you’ve learned from your mistake. This can increase the goodwill of those you are making the apology to because it shows that you’ve reflected on your error, your apology is genuine, and that you’re not just trying to smooth things over. Of course, before you can share the lessons learned, you first have to know what those lessons are. If you’re not sure, then take a step back, investigate, and even ask others what lessons they think you could draw from this experience. Generally speaking, managers and executives don’t expect you (or anyone) to be perfect, but they do expect people to learn and grow. Sharing the lessons you learned shows a certain amount of introspection and maturity, which can showcase your ability to analyze and move beyond difficult circumstances.


Step 3: Rebuild Trust—Implement a Prevention Plan

A step beyond the lessons learned is understanding how you will prevent the mistake from happening again. What will you do differently? If you don’t know, it is okay to ask others for feedback. In my experience, people are generous when someone asks for help and they often provide great insight. People who are great at customer service will say that the best way to fix mistakes and prevent them from happening again is to ask the customers how they would like the mistake to be resolved. Surprisingly enough, when a customer is asked how they’d like the situation to be fixed, they usually don’t ask for as much as you expect.

Your plan to avoid the mistake in the future requires specific actions. Making vague assurances such as “I will work harder,” “I will do better,” or “I will be more proactive” is not enough. In fact, those kinds of statements may actually serve as a sign that the same mistake is likely to happen again—because the plan to fix things is inadequate. Specifics are critical for two reasons: first, you really do need to know what you will do differently. Second, the number one reason why people tend to be skeptical about moving forward from a mistake is because they are worried that it will happen again. If you’ve completed Steps 1 and 2 and are accountable for a specific plan in Step 3, you will give others the confidence that the mistake won’t be repeated, rebuilding trust in the process.

Barefoot Wine once put the wrong bar code on a shipment of Cabernet, so the wine rang up for less than it should have at the store. When the mistake was discovered, one of Barefoot’s founders, Michael Houlihan, delivered a check covering the store’s loss to the store’s corporate office. The check also covered the time and expense of dealing with the problem. Houlihan then described to the manager how Barefoot’s internal processes would be changed to make sure such a problem would never happen again. The manager thanked Houlihan for doing the right thing and continued to place orders for Barefoot Wine.


Discretion Required

These three steps are critical in all situations in which a mistake has been made, but they don’t necessarily all have to be shared outwardly. What you do share depends strongly on your relationship with those you are apologizing to. Furthermore, some aspects of the steps are more relevant to certain kinds of relationships. For instance, a customer cares about Steps 1 and 3, but they do not necessarily need to hear all of the lessons learned that you will use to grow from the situation. Customers generally just want you to own up to a mistake and fix it. Your boss, however, is interested in all three of these steps (although he or she may not be overtly asking about them), most likely to ensure that you are growing and that the issue won’t happen again.

Once you have an understanding of these steps, you can use them as a coaching tool in a group setting – with your team or division, or even with your family. It’s a great process for working through the issues that arise when a mistake happens and apologies need to be made.

Please understand that I am not advocating that we dwell on our mistakes. We do need to put our focus on moving forward; but I have found that people who practice these three steps—even if only internally for their own benefit—grow from the process. Those who shirk responsibility for errors are destined to repeat their pasts and get stuck there. It is the process of taking responsibility and examining the lessons learned that frees us from the past and propels us into a better future.

Eliminate Negative Self Talk


Eliminate Negative Self-Talk to Find a Way

The struggle of negative self-talk is near and dear to my heart, because I was a negative self-talker for years. I actually thought that beating myself up inside was advantageous to me. My rationale was that it drove me to be successful, but the truth is that it also made me sad and, worse yet, not even able to appreciate the good times and successes.

Negative self-talk can actually create the very doom and gloom we are looking to avoid and even spin off unforeseen problems if not kept in check. After all, when we are not feeling good about ourselves, we tend to avoid taking necessary action. We might not even go for our dreams and if we do, we might not give it our all. Negative self-talk can easily lead to a life of regrets.

Fortunately, you have the power to replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Doing so can turn around all kinds of situations. One of my employees shared how when she was looking for a job in 2008 during the great recession, she was given some wisdom that she turned into positive self-talk. Someone told her to focus on the fact there’s always room for the best. Although she felt doomed by bad circumstances, she continually reminded herself that there are always possibilities and openings for people who are the best. She ended up quickly finding a job, and a year ago I hired her and she is one of the best employees I have ever had. Why? Because she is confident, open to learning, and constantly growing, among other things. Her self-talk impacts her actions and produces results.

If you tend to fill your mind with negative self-talk, use this five-step step self-talk turnaround strategy. I developed it for myself, and I am happy that you can use it to achieve the success you deserve:

  1. Be aware. You can’t fix a problem if you’re not aware of the problem, but what are your thoughts when you encounter a problem? Do your thoughts sound like these? Oh, I just knew something like this was going to happen. No good deed goes unpunished. Even good things turn to crud. I should have seen this coming. I just won’t get my hopes up anymore because then I won’t be disappointed. You get the picture.
  2. Don’t fight it, embrace it. As Carl Jung, the renowned psychiatrist, said, “What you resist persists.” In other words, if you try to deny it, rationalize it, fight against it, it will persist. Have you ever been thinking negatively, become aware of it, and then just tried really hard to think positively? How did that work for you? If you’re like me, it just aggravates an already challenging situation. Instead, it’s more helpful to take notice of how you’re feeling and not resist it: “Wow, I’m really thinking negatively about things. It is amazing how much negative chatter is going on in my head.” When you truly embrace it, as strange as it may sound, it loosens its grip on you and you can start to let it go like watching clouds pass by in the sky. You might even smile about it.
  3. Be clear on where it came from. You create negative self-talk, which is actually good news because if you created it, then you can change it. How did you create it? I don’t want to play psychologist here, but negative self-talk is often a result of things that have happened in your past that may have caused you to draw some conclusions about yourself. For example, maybe you lost your job, and as a result you decided that you are not that talented. Or maybe you had a relationship that ended badly, and as a result you made up in your mind you’re not very good at relationships. In other words, the conclusions you chose were and continue to be disempowering conclusions from your past. The point here is to ask yourself why you think what you think and then tell yourself, “If I came up with those conclusions, I could have come up with different conclusions.” For example, in the case of losing your job, you could have decided they didn’t recognize your talents and as a result you learned so much about yourself that will empower you to get a better job in the future. In the case of the relationship that ended, you could have just said, “It’s their loss, good riddance.” So own up that you created the negative conclusions and self-talk. You did it to you. No one made you think that way. Take responsibility. This is good news because you are in control of you and you can do something about you.
  4. Give yourself an upgrade and create new positive self-talk. Like buying an upgrade package, create new self-talk and install it in your mind. Write down your new self-talk. “I deserve success.” “Things have a way of working out.” “I’m going to accomplish my goals.” I think you get the point. Write down the new positive self-talk so you can install it in your mind.
  5. Repeat the new positive self-talk—with emotion—until it replays automatically in your head. Do this over and over again. Emotions help give it meaning and help it get ingrained in your mind. Until that happens, fake it until you make it. Even if you don’t feel it, keep saying your new positive self-talk with emotion. Repetition is key—just like going to the gym. You don’t just go once and expect yourself to be healthy; you go over and over again. You know positive self-talk has taken hold when you don’t need to be conscious of it.

If you still doubt that self-talk is critical to success, consider this: Diana Nyad was the first person to swim 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without a shark tank. She did it at the age of 64. In an interview she talked about the power of the mind, explaining that she used a mantra, something she said over and over again, to keep her focused and help her deal with the pain and adversity. Her mantra was “Find a way.”

Think how profound that self-talk is. Find a way. Find a way to solve a problem. Find a way to make your job great. Find a way to be a great parent or great spouse. Find a way to succeed. We all have down days, and being negative is part of the ebb and flow of life. The key is that even on those down days, our self-talk can lead us to remember that there will be better days and the brightest days with the biggest reward are ahead of us. Why? Because our self-talk finally says we deserve it. Find a way!


Detect and Implement the Three Levels of Honesty

For the full article and interview click here

7 Best Tips to Communicate Top Down and Bottom Up

7 Best Tips to Communicate Top Down and Bottom Up

Communication is only communication if the message gets where it needs to go and is received by those who need to hear it. Here are seven tips to successfully communicate top down, bottom up and even across your organization:

  1. Communicate face to face wherever you can. Research shows that less than 10 percent of the meaning of a message is carried through the actual words. If we just have written communication without any face-to-face communication, people are going to miss the message. If your workforce is geographically dispersed, then make use of technology. Seeing each others’ faces makes a huge difference.
  2. Clarity and simplicity are key. The person who defines whether a message is clear is not the sender but the receiver. Unfortunately, I often hear people say, “I must have said it five times. I was perfectly clear.” This shows the disconnect between what the speaker thinks is clear and what is actually clear. Be aware of your messages: Make sure your communication is to the point and not vague. A lack of clarity will only be magnified as the message gets relayed through the layers of the organization. Simple is powerful.
  3. Remember that messages can get distorted. When people are stressed, their listening decreases and so what they do hear becomes distorted. If you are trying to convey tough messages (which will cause stress), try to keep your message short, and then actually invite dialogue. For tough messages, one-way communication is not sufficient. Invite questions. Talk with folks. This helps people to absorb the message.
  4. Build in accountability. Many organizations suffer from what I call a thermal layer where communications do not penetrate. This is quite often the case when leadership conveys a message that they expect to get relayed down through the organization, and then they find out it was not relayed. When you have a message that needs to be cascaded down throughout the organization, give folks a deadline for making that happen and hold them accountable. One more thing: Check in with the bottom levels of your organization to make sure the message was received.
  5. Use multiple means of communication. For example, hold town hall meetings when you have to convey strategic initiatives and other vital information so that people can hear it directly from the leader. Use your organization’s intranet to post important information. Of course, you can’t expect people to always check that website, but you can incentivize them so they are more likely to use it. Email, website, meetings, and town halls all have their place. Important messages need to be shared in multiple ways.
  6. Make people aware of the central talking points. If you are expecting folks to cascade a message throughout your organization, make sure they are aware of the key talking points as well as the points not to say. This matters because people will often start expanding on less important points and miss the key ones. Be sure to emphasize what is most important so it can’t be missed.
  7. Watch out for lengthy emails with multiple points. Generally it is better to keep emails short. Remember, quick and easy is better than long and complicated.

Many organizations do employee surveys, and the results often show that there’s an issue with communication. I have worked with a lot of leaders who get these results despite the fact that they have been working hard at communication. Don’t give up. This is not an easy problem to solve, but it is one where you can make a difference step by step. You can always communicate more—and more effectively. Follow these guidelines and you can begin to make a real difference in your organization.

Communicating with Angry Customers

Communicating with Angry Customers

 Although it may be tempting, never dismiss an angry or upset customer—no matter how inconsequential their issue may sound. Unhappy customers are the much more vocal than happy ones, and with social media, one problem customer can turn into a firestorm of criticism and backlash. Just as important, one customer complaint may be the tip of the iceberg of a larger issue. Listening to your customer’s complaint will allow you to uncover the truth, which could be a systemic issue that needs your attention and resolution.

To help you approach the complaint with a good attitude, consider that your angry or upset customer could be giving you a gift of awareness. One thing that can seem intimidating about upset customers is that the situation feels tricky and unpredictable. Fortunately this six-step customer turnaround strategy provides a tool to manage the situation and bring it to a positive resolution:

Step 1: Make the correct assumptions.

After years in the trenches working with employees at all levels, I have learned that certain assumptions can empower lives and, in particular, our relationships. One such assumption is this: Assume good intent. People who handle customers, especially difficult ones, often assume that the customer does not know what they are talking about, just wants to get more for less, or will be unhappy no matter what they do to resolve the situation. Assuming good intent helps us use a different tone, and tone has five times the impact of the words we say. Assuming good intent is powerful.

Step 2: Probe and deeply listen.

When people are upset they may say things they don’t mean or things that are not the real issues. If you get defensive or become combative, things may spiral into a negative debate and, worse, you may shut the person down. If that happens, you’ll never uncover the real issue. Don’t argue. Ask questions and listen.

Step 3: Acknowledge their emotions.

Don’t get caught up in the words people say. Listen for the true emotions behind them. Emotions are one of the driving forces of human beings. When we acknowledge and reflect back someone’s emotions, we validate their feelings. This can be a calming influence with an angry or upset customer. Remember what Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Step 4: Apologize.

Apologies go a long way toward easing tension, even if you are apologizing on behalf of another individual or area. When you apologize, do not say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry that happened, but…” That is not an apology. An apology takes full ownership, which can lead to forgiveness and enable others to let go of their bad feelings.

Step 5: Facilitate an agreeable solution and manage expectations accordingly.

You can do this by asking solution-oriented questions. For example, you can ask the customer: “Given what has happened how can we best help you now? What can be done to improve the situation?” If they ask for something you cannot deliver, say so and offer a different suggestion or compromise. If you are not sure you can deliver what they’re asking for, say so and give them a specific time frame by when you will get back to them. Be clear and manage expectations.

Step 6: Close the loop.

Make sure the solution is satisfying to the customer before you take action and move forward. Be bold and ask the customer: “If we are able to do the following steps, will this resolve the situation for you?” People often shy away from asking a question of this nature because they are afraid the customer or client will say the solution is not good enough. If they do, go back to step one and start again. Be thankful that you found out now rather than later after wasting your time and company resources without ultimately satisfying the customer.

With this six-step customer turnaround strategy you can turn any upset customer into your best customer. Sound unlikely? It’s not. When you go above and beyond and resolve your customer’s issue, it is a chance to shine. Many companies report that their toughest customers end up being their happiest and most vocal customers. Use this six-step strategy and watch your business grow.

Overcoming Idea Breakdown

I love McDonald’s. I know some don’t, but I love it. My favorite sandwich is the Big Mac. The Big Mac, which is one of the most successful fast food sandwiches ever created, was created by a franchisee, not by McDonald’s corporate headquarters. Whether you like Big Macs or you don’t, the point here is that breakthrough ideas often don’t originate from leadership.

Any employee can generate a great idea, the problem is that good ideas aren’t always shared. We all need to innovate, which means we need good ideas. The trouble isn’t a dearth of good ideas, the trouble is in the lack of communication about those ideas. The number one way to motivate people to share ideas is to demonstrate that those ideas will be used. Unfortunately, the number one reason why employees don’t share ideas is because in the past they have had their ideas rejected or—even worse—they have not received any feedback at all about their ideas. The interesting twist to this is that the number one reason that leaders reject ideas is because they report those ideas are half-baked, not well thought out. In other words, the ideas are just too rough to be actionable.

The fix here is simple: If everyone is honest and shares their perspective, we will get more information, more yeses, and more ideas to act on, which will create even more ideas. In this scenario, everyone benefits. If leaders say yes or at least share what is missing from an idea, then employees will know what to do to get their ideas accepted. And if organizations do a better job of sharing how ideas are being used, it will encourage more people to give ideas.

Usually there is a breakdown somewhere in this process. I was brought into a situation where an organization was using ideas but doing a lousy job of sharing how those ideas are being used. So people wrongly concluded that ideas were not being used and therefore stopped giving them. Once we worked with the organization to broadcast how ideas were being used, the floodgates opened with fresh innovative ideas.

If an idea of yours is rejected, don’t despair. Instead ask for feedback. You can even ask, what would it take for you to agree to my idea? You may find out you are closer to getting a yes than you realized. Ideas are not usually the problem. The ideas may be half-baked, they may need work, but that is not the problem. That is normal. What is needed is feedback, explanation, guidance, and the broadcasting of success. With that we can get more yeses and therefore more successes.

Follow up to National Honesty Day 2016

In an effort to help you further celebrate and implement National Honesty Day, so that it is every day of your life, I wanted to share this radio interview with you.

In this interview, you will learn about:

•  How human beings suffer from Honesty Delusional Syndrome (HDS) and what to do about it

•  The three most damaging lies to pay attention to

•  What we can learn from today’s political situation

•  Social media: Is it helping or hurting honesty?

•  Whether or not people are more dishonest today

•  The number one way to make people tell you the truth

Share with us how you celebrated National Honesty Day at!

National Honesty Day 2016

How to celebrate National Honesty Day on Saturday, April 30th – How often are we really telling the truth? Is it ever okay to lie? Honesty has a significant impact on any business as well as your personal life. Getting the Unsaid, Said is key to opening up communication and building trust with others.

Watch this TV interview to learn the #1 reason people don’t speak the truth and the steps you can take to embrace difficult situations that require honesty.