“I want a divorce.”
Some words cause your body to go numb. Your ears buzz. You start to float above yourself. In those moments, you’re experiencing so much stress, and your body is being flooded with so much adrenaline, it can be difficult to think straight.
As difficult as it may be, thinking straight is the #1 thing you can do to help yourself when you’re getting terrible news. It’s crucial, in those moments, to keep your wits about you, gather information, and maintain self-control.
So how do you stay calm when you’re in the middle of receiving terrible news?
Take a sip of water.
It’s a tiny action, but taking a sip of water can be a great move when you receive shocking information. First, it gives you a mental break from the tough conversation. You may feel like you need a split second to close your eyes and process the information, and taking a sip of water gives you an excuse for breaking eye contact without looking “weak.” Taking a sip of water also gives you something to do with your hands, to keep them from jittering. Especially if the conversation is with someone like a boss, you want to appear composed and stoic. Having a glass of water as a prop can cover up your nerves.
Stay present in the moment.
It’s human nature, when getting bad news, for your thoughts to start spinning out of control. You can’t help but think about the future, and how this news will shape your life for months or years to come. Instead, keep your thoughts in the moment at hand. When you keep you mind focused, you’ll be better able to process what’s actually happening than if you allow your mind to wander to all the worst case scenarios. As this Forbes article remarks, it’s definitely best to avoid heading down the spiral of “what if…?” When you stay in the moment, you’ll be a better participant in the conversation, and you’ll remember the important information more accurately. Which dovetails perfectly with the next step…
When I found out I had cancer, there were so many questions I wished I had asked the doctor when I was right there in front of him. Because I was so flustered at the news, I sat there in shock instead of asking smart questions. I had to email my concerns to the nurse and wait several days for a response. If you get bad news, don’t hesitate to ask as many questions as you need, rather than assuming the worst. It also helps to take notes. Many times our adrenaline keeps us from recording good memories of these tough conversations, so taking notes will help you not only focus in the moment, but also give you something to jog your memory later.
Remind yourself all the ways it could be worse.
We’ve been taught to believe we should think positive when we get bad news. But last week I had the honor of hearing Sheryl Sandberg, the author and Facebook executive, participate in a Q&A, and she had a different perspective. She recalled that a friend told her, after her husband Dave died, that “it could have been worse. Dave could have been driving the children when his heart gave out.” She realized that she could have lost her entire family in a single moment. By remembering that things could, in fact, be worse, we put our struggles in perspective.
Take a single action.
Getting bad news makes us feel powerless. We can’t control the situation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. Figure out the first action you can take to regain control, no matter how small. Through a psychological construct called “self efficacy,” taking even the smallest action helps you feel more competent and powerful. If you’ve been diagnosed with an illness, your fist step could be finding a specialist. If you’re faced with divorced, your first step could be protecting your financial information. If you’ve been let go from your job, it could be brushing up your resume. By doing what you can do, even if it doesn’t feel like much, you’re building your self efficacy for the moments ahead.
Getting bad news can feel like life as you know it is over. But if you keep calm, stay present, gather information, and put the situation in perspective, you’ll be able to move forward as quickly as possible.