Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Interpersonal Communication

Bad News Sandwiches

Ibad news once had an employee who was not doing well. She just didn’t seem to understand the nature and objectives of her role. Her work was sloppy and often had to be re-done by others. She often missed deadlines. Other employees resented her because they felt she wasn’t pulling her weight.

We needed to motivate her and get her on a new path. Or, failing that, we needed to cut our losses and terminate her. I consulted with HR about the best ways to have a “difficult conversation” with her.

HR advised me to use a “bad news sandwich”. Delivering bad news can deflate a person and de-motivate them. So you create a “sandwich” of good news/bad news/good news. In theory, that delivers the bad news without discouraging the person.

The conversation went reasonably well. I thought I delivered both the good news and the bad news effectively. I spent roughly 60% of the time on the bad news. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. She had been called in by the “big boss” and two of the three messages she heard were positive. She concluded that she was doing better than she had previously thought. Her work did not improve.

I realized that I should have paid more attention to Greek rhetoric. The Greeks taught a system of message prioritization. If you have three messages to deliver in a speech, put the strongest message first. Put the second strongest message last. Put the weakest message in the middle. Why? Because the middle message is the one your audience is most likely to forget. This is sometimes called the “primacy and latency effect” – the first and last ideas are remembered.

I was reminded of this incident when I spotted an article, “You’ve Been Doing a Fantastic Job, Just One Thing …” in a recent edition of the New York Times. The article also notes that the bad news sandwich doesn’t work (though they call it a “praise sandwich” which is analogous to calling a chicken sandwich a “bread sandwich”).

The article notes that feedback serves different purposes for people at different points in a learning cycle. Novices often lack confidence and need encouragement. Negative feedback can discourage them. On the other hand, more experienced people see feedback as a way to improve their performance. As always, it’s important to know who your audience is.

The article also questions whether it’s useful to label feedback positive or negative. Let’s say I see you riding a bicycle and say, “You’d be more efficient if you raised your saddle by two inches or so.” Is that positive feedback or negative? Sometimes feedback is just feedback.

What have I learned in all this? I’m now more likely to give “negative” feedback without the positive wrapper. I try not to be harsh but I do try to be specific. I also learned that defining a decision as “either/or” can be self-defeating. It turns out that the woman in my little story wasn’t a particularly good marketer. But she was very good at inter-personal communication and very intuitive about other people’s needs. We found her a role in the HR department and she blossomed. I thought that the decision was binary: either she improved or she would be fired. It turns out that there was another option, as there often is. The good news? No more bad news sandwiches for her.

Multitasking is a Myth

I can’t really do this.

I’ve never been able to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. I always assumed that this was a shortcoming on my part. I have friends who claim to be good multitaskers — attending to multiple projects and sources of information at the same time. I can focus on a task for hours on end but I’ve never been able to do two things at once. I always envied my multitasking friends.

Then last week, I attended a presentation by Bridget Arend, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver. Discussing how the brain works, she dropped an important tidbit: multitasking is a myth. People don’t really do two things at once. Instead, they are speedy serial task switchers. (Let’s call them SSTSers).

The best SSTSers can shift quickly from one target to another and focus intently on whatever target is in front of them at the moment. They focus intently and shift quickly. I think of expert trap shooters who can aim quickly at one clay pigeon, shoot it, and then — just as quickly — re-focus on another clay pigeon. They would never dream of aiming at two pigeons at once — it just doesn’t work. Perhaps we need to forget the old saying that we can kill two birds with one stone. It doesn’t happen. Believing it does only leads us astray.

This has important implications for communications. First, if you want to communicate to me, be sure you have my attention. If you walk into my office when I’m intently focused on my computer, you may not get my attention for a few minutes. It’s often a good idea to suggest that we go out for a cup of coffee — change the scenery, change the context, and allow me to re-focus. As Suellen can attest, I sometimes look straight at her and yet fail to hear anything she says.

Similarly, audiences don’t multitask well. You need a good introduction to grab their attention and get them to re-focus on you rather than whatever they were thinking about before. Some speakers love to show text-heavy slides while continuing to talk at normal presentation speed. They’re assuming that filling two channels — eyes and ears — will increase the impact. Actually, it’s just the opposite — the two channels cancel each other out. Sooner or later, each audience member attends to one channel or the other. Visual learners (a majority of us) tend to look at the slides while relegating you to oblivion.

This is also a good reason not to mention anything even remotely sexual in your speeches. Rest assured that sex is wildly more interesting than anything you’re talking about. If you mention sex, a good chunk of your audience will wander off on that track, never to return to your track. Sex is the ultimate serial task. Even the best SSTSers can’t switch quickly from that track to another. So, now that you’re thinking about sex, it’s time for me to sign off. I’m not going to get your attention back. See you tomorrow.

Moderating the Extremes

It’s complicated.

Your friend, Mary, avidly and vocally supports a national flat tax. Or maybe she’s convinced that free trade is the only sensible way to stimulate the world economy. Or maybe she actively supports more government programs to ensure equality of opportunity.

Let’s also assume that you disagree with Mary. You’d like her to see your side. But she’s so convinced that she’s right — and everybody else is wrong — that it’s difficult to have a conversation with her. Your attempts at dialogue just devolve into long-winded diatribes.

So how do you move Mary? Here are two different communication strategies:

  1. Ask Mary why she thinks her position is correct.
  2. Ask Mary how her ideas would work in the real world.

If you pursue Strategy 1, Mary will simply launch into her “pre-recorded” sound bites and positions. Strategy 1 does not require Mary to think. It merely requires her to repeat. She continues to convince herself. As a result, Mary’s position will likely become even more extreme.

Strategy 2, on the other hand, requires Mary to think through a variety of complicated, real-world issues. A common feature of extreme political positions is that they’re over-simplified. By requiring Mary to think through complicated issues, Strategy 2 often reveals weaknesses in the logic. It’s not so simple as it seemed. As a result, Mary’s position often becomes more moderate and more nuanced.

The effectiveness of Strategy 2 derives from the “illusion of explanatory depth”. In their article on the phenomenon (click here), Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil explain that, “People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth.” When you ask people how their ideas would actually work, they start to bump into the limits of their illusion. They don’t understand it nearly as well as they thought. As their explanation falters, so does the certitude of their position.

In this final week of the presidential campaign, many people are stating extreme positions. If you want to have a substantive discussion with another person — as opposed to a battle of sound bites — don’t ask why they believe something. Rather, ask them how it works.

Managing Your Voice

How many meanings does the following sentence have: What are you doing there?

The sentence has only five words but you can interpret it in at least five different ways. It’s very ambiguous.  Your audience may interpret it in ways that you didn’t mean.  It all depends on your tone of voice.  You work on your speaking skills but how good are you at managing your tone of voice? Learn a useful exercise to improve your tone-of-voice control in today’s video.

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