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Real Feedback versus Thinking Mistakes: How We Interpret Bad News

A lady I mentored was presented with a series of negative personal and business comments during a bad news interview with her manager. Having owned a business myself in the country where she lives, I know from experience that managers there often like to be seen as the 'big boss' and behave accordingly. You could say that the concept of 'Gentle Leadership' is not yet fully accepted there. But how do you deal with such people and negative comments?

Regulating emotions during bad news conversations

The lady in question was fairly upset. She had heard allegations that in her perception were completely unjustified and even her job was at risk. At least she thought so.

She had long and often suffered from the cognitive distortions ‘negative predicting’ and ‘exaggerating’ and now too she applied them to this conversation. Not realizing that the two could make things much more emotional than necessary.

Cognitive distortions, also known as thinking errors, are incorrect or irrational ways we interpret and react to information. These distortions can lead to unrealistic and negative beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us. There are several, but in her case, it was specifically about negative predicting and exaggerating. 

Negative predicting (catastrophizing): This involves automatically expecting the worst-case scenario, even when there is little evidence for such an outcome. For example, someone who engages in negative predicting may think, "He wants to bully me away" or "He hates me" without concrete evidence for this.

Exaggerating: This means magnifying the negative aspects of a situation. A small problem is seen as a huge obstacle. For example, after receiving negative feedback: "He thinks I'm incredibly stupid! He thinks I can't do anything at all."

So if the manager says he wants you to be on time from now on, you may think through your distortions, "He thinks I'm an awful loser, hates me terribly, and therefore wants to bully me away." But that manager didn't say that at all, he just wants you to be on time. Dot. When you start predicting negatively and exaggerating, you see and hear things that are not there and yes, if you make it that big and negative, I would also be overwhelmed by my emotions when negative feedback is given.

Now there are people who say, "Yes, but know who is saying it and so I know how he means it." Those people often suffer from the cognitive distortion ‘mind reading’.

Mind reading: This is the tendency to believe that you know what another person is thinking or feeling, without direct evidence. People who 'mind read' assume they know what others are thinking, even if they have not communicated it. This can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and sometimes unnecessary conflict.

Knowing for sure what someone means by reading thoughts and then also predicting negatively and making things worse, makes emotions even more overwhelming.

If you want to regulate your emotions after a bad news conversation you will have to be sure not to apply these distortions to the conversation in the first place.

Evaluate a bad news conversation in 5 steps

Sometimes it can help to evaluate a bad news conversation. Not only because you will then experience less emotion, but also because you can then be sure you understand the essence of what was meant.

Step 1: Stick to what was literally said:

If you too get emotional after a bad news conversation, it can help immensely to write down word for word what was said to you. But be careful, so you don't write down what you think the person meant and how it was said, but everything exactly what words were used.

I once coached a lady who was in a difficult relationship and during the intake she had a whole story about how her boyfriend really hated her, called her names, and usually went completely crazy against her. She was really convinced of this. When questioned during a conversation in which her partner was also present, he had literally said in a calm but firm tone of voice that he did not accept it when she would throw tableware in her anger. That is very different from finding someone terrible and going off your rocker. Sometimes, due to our distortions, our thoughts store different behaviors, expressions, and words than were actually used.

Step 2: Pay no attention to the style of communication

If you are able to write down as precisely as possible what was said in the bad news conversation, also try to take away the style in which something was said. Just because someone is a manager does not mean they are a communication expert. Nor does he or she always have all emotions, mood swings, and behaviors under control. Let alone that these are always used effectively. Sometimes a bad news conversation is as difficult for the bringer as it is for the receiver.

In the case of the lady abroad, one part was about how she had not been feeling well for a while due to circumstances, and that this was reflected in her work. That sometimes has to be said from a manager's role, but is really not always easy when you don't know if she is doing better. That manager is not a therapist or coach and is often completely unaware of what attitude he or she is exuding.

Step 3: Pay no attention to slips of the tongue

Once you have written down all - or as many - sentences that have been said and pretend that the style does not matter, try to take out the words that may not have been meant that way or could also be seen in a different context.

For example, the manager may have said, "I have now seen you coming late five times and I don't think that's a good sign to the other colleagues who then also think that just anything is possible and allowed."

He may mean here that you as the recipient of the feedback are acting as if everything is possible and allowed, but you can also read it as meaning that he wants everyone to strictly observe the agreed rules. In the latter case, it says nothing about you.

So you want to look for words, or statements that don't actually have anything to do directly with the essence of the feedback. It was about being late and not about your work attitude.

Step 4: Analyse the essence of the feedback

Based on what you now know, write down what you think is the essence of the feedback. Do this as briefly as possible. In the case of being late, the example would be: The manager wants me to always be on time.

Step 5: Ask targeted and additional questions

Then, if there are still things that are unclear or prove incorrect, write down what you still want to ask. After all, maybe it was not true at all that you were late a few times. Then ask for clarification by asking when this was. The questions you ask can start with:

  1. How exactly do you know that....

  2. When exactly was it that....

  3. How exactly do you notice that...

  4. What exactly do you notice that....

By using the word exactly in your questioning, you are kindly asking to get specific. But when you ask those follow-up questions, it's wise to first tell what you took away from the feedback. You can do this, for example, by saying: I understand from your feedback that..... (fill in the essence of the feedback here).

Is style important when giving feedback?

The way someone gives negative feedback can make a huge difference in how this feedback is received. But as you read above, you yourself also have a huge influence on how you receive the message.

In fact, leaders and managers should all have the empathic ability to connect and stay connected with someone. Especially in a bad news conversation. But then again, we all also want the train to always arrive on time. The world is not perfect, so perhaps we should train ourselves to handle feedback better.


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