Disaster, whether natural or manmade, brings with it lots of discussion of what people in charge should say and not say. I found an article written about the May 12, 2009 Sichaun earthquake disaster that suggests an excellent way to communicate challenging information.
Wang Yong wrote in the Shanghai Daily, “In times of great danger and distress, staying calm is important, and the best way to calm an emotional public is to tell it what you know and don’t know. If the media or the government doesn’t disclose these facts to the public in a timely manner, misunderstanding will grow, feeding unjustified anger and fear.”
Here’s how this quote can help you communicate the hard stuff.
- Stay calm. The minute you lose your temper, you have lost. In times of great stress, take a deep breath. Keep your voice steady.
- Tell what you know. Even if this is difficult, you must state the facts up front. Your listener will respect you for this, even if not immediately.
- Tell what you don’t know. You don’t know everything. Be honest with your listener.
- Be timely. This concept is as much a blessing for you as it is for the listener. If you need to deliver difficult information, letting this drag out is tension filled for you and everyone else.
Writing this article reminds me of a few very difficult moments during the final days of my beloved mother’s life. My sister and I spent every waking hour in the hospital waiting room of the intensive care unit as our mother valiantly tried to fight back from her inevitable fatal heart attack. This was a time fraught with potential misunderstandings (when was this or that tube being inserted, when was this or that procedure going to happen or not happen…), potential anger (why was this happening to her, to us…), and potential fear (how can I cope with this negative outcome?).
I vividly recall the phenomenal medical team. They stayed calm. They told us what they knew – the positives and the negatives. They told us what they didn’t know – that science does not have all of the answers. They were timely with the information; and we became smarter at knowing when we wanted to hear the data. I discovered that there were times, especially late in the evening, when I did NOT want all of the answers. It keeps you from sleeping.