“You’re good at Giving Bad News”

People - More Bad News by carlos.a.martinez

People - More Bad News by carlos.a.martinez CC 3.0 http://www.flickr.com/photos/kumanday/4374733056

That’s what someone at work said to a while ago. It was a compliment…like, I can say that I don’t like something without making the person feel like crap, not that I was Death of the Office or something.

I attribute part of this apparent gift to my writing groups. Writing groups, critique groups, writing class…they almost always tell you to start with the good. Because there is always something good, even if it was the simple act of finishing something. The more critiques you do, the more good you find. No, that’s not right. The better you are at seeing it and expressing it, because the good is always there. A phrase you like, a way of connecting scenes, the realistic conversations, even that the author chose to describe the dress as red.

Wrapping the critique in good can sometimes backfire. You find so many little things that you like that you backpedal from your original gut reaction of “ew.” Finding the good can be paralyzing…now you really don’t want to hurt the person.

So, I suspect that what really makes me good at giving bad news is learning how to couch the bad news itself. In my writer’s groups, we never say “that was stupid,” “your writing is just unbearable.” No, we have to be specific. What exactly didn’t you like? And why? And that makes the commenter think…and makes it about them and their reaction. And as someone explains their reaction to the scene and why they reacted that way, the author can realize that there is something that’s not coming across right or that William just really hates puppies* and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you should ignore his comments.

*Where puppies stand in for anything (small detail to overarching plot) that is strictly personal preference. I enjoy having a cross-genre group of writers in a group for the diverse reactions and comments, but if someone doesn’t like sci-fi or romance in general, there are going to be the “I’m not sure the flying saucer works for me” or “I guess I just wonder what would happen if they didn’t get together” comments. The trick is making sure that those aren’t your comments…or at least owning up to them if they are.

So, The Empty Pen’s Keys to Giving Bad News at Work: Find good. Analyze bad. And frame it from your perspective rather than putting it out there as a universal truth.

Have you ever been told that you’re good at giving bad news (or some equally bizarre compliment)? To what do you attribute it?


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