What do I say?
I've been answering that question for almost twenty years now.
The question, “What do I say?” comes up over and over again in those difficult, awkward, and “sticky” situations.
And over the years, I've consistently advised one formula that's worked for clients (and friends, and family members) in situations across the board, and across the globe.
Here's my No-Fail Formula for Communicating in Sticky Situations:
You say the most honest thing in the simplest, most compassionate way.
1. Being honest means you say the truth straight-forwardly.
No beating around the bush. No making the other person read between the lines.
Say what you mean, and do so directly.
2. Saying it simply means no long, drawn out explanations.
Those long explanations, while well-intended, pretty much always do more harm than good.
Because they're generally about making the explainer feel better about what they're saying or feel more justified in the message they're delivering. They're rarely about the person receiving the communication.
If you find yourself getting long winded, you're probably focusing on yourself.
On how you're going to look to the other person. On whether the other person's going to like you after they read/hear this. On what the other person's going to say about you after they read/hear this.
Give only as much explanation as is necessary to make your message clear.
If you are explaining beyond that, be highly skeptical of your own motives:
Is this about the other person and the situation directly at hand, or is this about you?
(By the way — you aren't left out in the cold. You do get to focus on you at a different step in the process… keep reading!)
3. Being compassionate means considering the impact what you're saying will have on the other person.
This does not mean you blow sunshine, fluff it up, get all fake sweet — remember the first part is to be honest.
You're delivering truth, but you're doing it in a way that acknowledges the other person is going to feel it, and you deliver it accordingly.
(This is what avoids the “brutal truth” delivery, which may be honest and simple, but is hardly compassionate.)
Remember that the impact is on the person you're talking to. This is not about the impact on you. In other words, this is not the place to sneak back in those thoughts about what the other person is going to think about you, or how much she's going to like or not like you.
“Okay, but this sticky situation is hard for me too… when I do I get to think about me?”
Remember I said you do get to focus on you? This is when that happens.
Because guess what: Being compassionate also includes self-compassion.
BUT here's the catch: You do your self-compassion work behind the scenes.
Yes, this probably feels anywhere from rough to downright awful for you, because “sticky situation” communications often do. And I'm not about to tell you that you should leave your emotions at the door when it comes to business — because, please. (If everyone actually did that, there would be no “sticky situations” in the first place, so let's not pretend that's even a possibility.)
So yes, you absolutely deserve to do — and should do — some self-compassion work, whatever that means to you, to manage this.
But you do your self-compassion work for yourself, by yourself, not when you're writing or talking to the other person.
“Keeping it professional” doesn't mean we keep emotions out of it. In this context, “keeping it professional” means that your message to your customer, client, team member, or colleague is clear, totally in integrity with you and your business, and very much focused on them.
“Don't I have to worry about the impact to my business / my professional image?”
Let's start with a few assumptions: (1) You are not a sociopath; (2) Your business is not sleazy; (3) You have integrity (that is, who you are “in public” is roughly the same as who you are “behind the scenes”); and (4) Any team members working with you also meet these criteria.
Assuming those to be true… Then the answer is no.
This tends to surprise people.
But if you follow the formula above, you won't have to worry about the impact your communication has to your business or your professional image.
Because it's an honest, direct, and compassionate reflection of you, and that will already be in integrity and alignment with your business.
The only time you'd have to worry about the impact to your business or professional image when you're following the formula is if, by being honest or compassionate, you'd somehow be stepping out of alignment with your business or image.
And if combining honesty and compassion takes you out of alignment with your business or professional image… I'd ask you to re-evaluate your business and professional image.
I can't make your challenging communication situations vanish.
But I can soften their rough edges.
That's what the No-Fail Formula for Communication in Sticky Situations is all about.
May it serve you and your business well!