What is small to you may be big to someone else

We pay attention to events, issues and situations that matter to us. In fact we can make what seems small to others become really big to ourself. Sometimes this is warranted, other times it is not.

A special life event

Take for example becoming a parent. I know not all of you are parents, yet you all came from parents.  You likely know people as well who are parents.  I have quite a few people in my network either expecting, about to have a baby or recently have given birth. When you are in their world this is a number one priority.  Becoming a parent is a big change, a big shift in someone's world view, their way of life and stage of growth as a person.

A daily life making others feel special

On the other hand if dealing with new babies every day is your job then maybe it is not so life changing.  When my obstetrician once told me how many babies he delivered was around 300 a year I felt the normality of it for him.  I was one of many new mothers in and out of his office, even though for me I felt at times like the only one.  Of course what made my doctor amazing was that he could still be personal, empathetic and understanding of my situation.

Human resource 'doctors' at work

How about another common situation faced by many in the workplace - losing your job due to a restructuring.  I worked on the Learning & Development side of Human Resources for several years. I was fortunate in my learning to observe first hand the challenges of being on the other side of the notice delivery process. 

On the surface I perceived people were treated as numbers in an equation that needed to balance up to please someone driving a budget, a deal, a new strategy.  Then I really started to ask what went on for my colleagues.  I was in awe of the professional approach taken by my fellow HR colleagues when it came to delivering the news.  To them it was a job that had logic and reason behind it.  They also developed the same level of objectivity married with empathy that a good doctor has when dealing with health issues in a patient.  I started to see my HR colleagues as the doctors of the business world treating the organisation. 

In this environment the HR professionals that stood out for me were the ones who had the personal touch. Just as my obstetrician did with me.  In the moment a good HR person can really step into the other person's shoes, empathise and support the person going through their experience.

Going too far

What is missing other times however is when the HR manager/consultant blocks out or forgets to remember that they are dealing with a person who in their world one day thought they had a job and now don't.  For the person losing their job it is all about the job, it is their whole world.  For the jaded HR person it can be another person on the list that they have to get through.  Or my other observation is that depersonalising the process and repeating it over and over again can create almost the same symptoms as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Their shock is delayed until later.

A real life bad example

So it was with frustration that I observed a conversation at a cafe the other day.  I was on my own in between meetings enjoying a coffee and a book.  Next to me was a HR manager 'coaching' a line manager on how to let go of someone in their team.

Why I paid attention to the conversation was that the HR manager was quite loudly and aggressively telling the line manager exactly how to do this.  What I noticed in the conversation which scared me...


  • The HR manager was forceful and one sided in her conversation.


  • No questions were asked to check the line manager's understanding and acceptance.


  • The lack of regard, concern for it all was palpable.  The HR manager was dismissive of the fact that the life of the person they were speaking about is in fact a life.


As I reflected on the situation I questioned how the HR manager would feel if she was treated the same way.  Then it clicked. Most likely this is how she was treated and the only way she knew how to behave.  Someone else in her world of work probably modeled this same telling method of coaching or told her that is how you do it.

What would I do differently?

Well I am not perfect yet can approach a situation with balance of empathy and truthfulness in feedback.  I believe when you deliver bad news to someone you need to do a few things.


  1. Pick the right moment.  Though there may not be a perfect time, some times of the day or week are better than others. For example telling someone bad news at the end of the day on a Friday leaves them without support over a weekend. 


  3. Choose an appropriate environment. It amazes me the number of sensitive conversations that take place in public, especially cafes with people in close proximity.  For the person on the receiving end, who is likely to have an emotional response, this is not very considerate. I have thought that this is a tactic for some people to avoid having to experience handling the emotional response.


  5. Put yourself in their shoes.  Before you start even saying a word remember how you would feel if you were on the other end. 


  7. Phrase your language sensitively. You can't take back the words once they are said.


  9. Check in. Regularly find out how the person is feeling after you say something.  Especially if you notice change in body language, voice or response.


  11. Offer support. Be part of the process to help the person work through the news YOU delivered. Follow up later, check in again. Provide resources that help.


  13. Let them speak and be heard. You at least owe the person this.  On a practical level it also helps the person to release some of the emotions they experience.


There are many more techniques and suggestions to help with this situation. My suggestion is if you have to deliver bad news then consult the person who does this every day. When you do though, make sure you choose the person who can also do so respectfully.   

And for you, think about your world versus the other person's when you are in conversation. What seems insignificant to you might be a big deal to them.

Let's go there...