Monday, February 16, 2009

A good time for bad news

I recently heard an NPR reporter use an expression as a preface to a question she was about to ask her guest: “…there’s never a good time for bad news.” I had never heard the expression before and it intrigued me. I pondered the validity of the adage.

Is there really never a good time to receive bad news?

There have certainly been times when the last thing I wanted to hear was bad news. It’s usually when I’ve got more pending or failing challenges than mental bandwidth to process them. It’s my own fault. I’m a checklist kind of guy and I often forget the importance of freeing up some of that mental space by simply jotting down a high-level list of things to accomplish by the end of the day. In those moments, bad news would be greeted with the shortest of tongues and the curtest of replies. Not a good time.

But there must be a yang to this yin.

If there are times when it’s a bad idea to try and process bad news, then there must be times when it’s actually a good idea. Sounds strange, but thinking it through, it makes since. But what does a good time for bad news look like? I mean, no one really wants a good time to come to and end. I can’t picture me saying, “Yeah, that’s about enough of this family good-time crap—someone bring on the misery.” So how does this work?

I think it’s somewhat relative. If I’m having a good time with my wife and kids, I wouldn’t want to receive the sort of news that would specifically conclude that good time. But if in the same good-time scenario someone points out that one of our spare home computers just experienced a catastrophic crash, well then phooey, but I can still have a good time with my family. One doesn’t threaten the other really—that is unless I choose to let it, which is another point to consider in this; choice.

In the family-time scenario, I could choose to get all grumpy at the bad news about the spare computer, letting my subconscious become so preoccupied with the anticipation of fighting with baffling software complications that I resolve to excusing myself from the group to address the problem. Or I could choose to stay focused on the joy of being with my family and let the computer issue worry about itself until I’m ready. Choice is the key here.

All in all, I think in this scenario and others like it, it’s considered a good time for bad news because the good time I’m having with my family isn’t directly affected and I can choose to think on and deal with the issue at another time. What’s more, I think these elements of relativity and choice are present with most situations. We can’t always depict how the bad news we’re presented with relates to the good time we’re presently experiencing, but the wisest of men and woman would tell us that we always have a choice in how we decide to address life’s challenges.

By the way, for me, right now is an okay time for bad news. But that’s another post.

1 comment:

  1. The issue of trying to time the delivery of bad news only arises when the messenger worries about the effect the bad news will have on the recipient and wants to delay delivering the news until it's a good time. Usually this is because the recipient is already having a bad time or is not in a good mood and the messenger doesn't want to make things worse for the recipient. (It could also be because the messenger is afraid of reprisal.)

    When the recipient is doing better, the messenger won't want to spoil the recipient's good mood & will wait for a better time. Next thing you know, life is going badly for the recipient so ....

    If in the context of the recipient's life, it is not a big deal and won't affect the recipient's mood, then the messenger doesn't worry about timing the delivery, and, in a way, the news isn't really all that bad.

    It's not a matter of "when is it a good time to receive bad news?" If the recipient knows there is bad news to be received, he or she likely won't want to wait, and even if the recipient tries to wait, he or she will be unable to avoid worrying about the unspecified bad news. This will ruin the recipient's mood and so the messenger won't give him or her a choice, but must decide "when is it a good time to deliver the bad news?"

    You are right that the recipient can choose how to handle the bad news; but it is the messenger who is trying to gauge how the recipient will be affected by the bad news.

    Since there is no really good time to deliver bad news, the messenger will keep putting off the delivery and this will make things worse; either conditions will deteriorate and the delivery of the news will be worse, or the recipient will be upset about being kept in the dark. So really, there is no "good time" and the messenger should deliver it as soon as possible.

    This honors what you have rightfully pointed out is the recipient's right to choose how to deal with the bad news.

    I've recently been thinking a lot about that expression & just happened to have found your thoughtful entry with google.