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Welcoming Unwelcome News

by on January 10, 2016

Some messages are easier to deliver – and also receive – than others. In libraries, we find ourselves delivering both negative and positive information to peers, supervisors, and the community. In my role selecting and evaluating e-resources, I’ve received and delivered both positive and negative information about project performance. Given the dynamic nature of the e-content environment, I focus on a strategy of turning information about poor performance into a pivot point for improvement.


Receiving negative information is healthy for any organization. If an organization is focused solely on the positive, opportunities for improvement can be overlooked. Sharing information about poor performance of a program or service creates an opportunity to better serve patrons, meet community needs, and invest resources, which is always a positive.

All participants in discussions about negative performance can have blind spots. As the person presenting information, it may be difficult to have critical conversations with respected colleagues, or we may fear reprisals from peers. Individuals receiving the information may feel the conversation is a personal attack and become defensive. Library staff members are often passionate about their programs and services, so they can be protective of the status quo. This can make it difficult to receive critical information about current library operations.

Pivot Point Discussions

You can set up a negative meeting to be more positive with two initial steps. First, prime the audience for an action-oriented – not person-oriented – response. This conversation will be about the program or service, not the individual or past decisions. In doing this, you are creating a safe space for problem solving. Second, if presenting potentially unwelcome news, set some solution-oriented goals for the meeting. The initial conversation or meeting may not produce a concrete plan to address the situation. If so, it is important for the conversation to be the starting point for actionable decisions.

Elements of the Conversation

Map out the conversation or meeting ahead of time. A short agenda or roadmap can help guide the meeting. I rely on two main elements in planning these meetings.

  1. Craft the meeting to promote multi-dimensional conversation. The conversation isn’t solely about performance metrics; it should be cognizant of the library as a whole, and concerns of all involved. A multi-directional conversation can help move the project forward.
  2. Present the information in multiple ways. I’m a visual learner, so I naturally respond to drawing graphs and diagrams, whereas other colleagues may respond better to bullet points or verbal conversations. Aim to make your presentation appealing to an audience with diverse preferences.

Recently, I initiated a pivot point conversation at my library. While it wasn’t easy, I focused the conversation on how the information would inform future decisions, not an indictment of past decisions. Here’s the thing, as one person in a large organization, I didn’t have the whole picture regarding performance expectations. By collaboratively engaging colleagues, we were able to come together to strategically analyze past performance of a service and improve the experience for future patrons.

Want to be prepared for these difficult conversations?  I suggest visiting – or revisiting – Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters the Most for an in depth exploration of this topic.  While first published over 15 years ago in 1999, this book offers time-tested advice for productive discussions of difficult issues.[1]  For a shorter guide, Robert Bies offers 10 rules for delivering bad news on Forbes.com.[2]

[1] Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Shelia Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters the Most (New York: Penguin Books, 2000).

[2] R. Bies, “The 10 Commandments for Delivering Bad News,” May 30, 2012, Forbes.com, http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2012/05/30/10-commandments-for-delivering-bad-news/.

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