Jennifer Abrams -Consultancy that informs, inspires, and empowers VOICE
February 2009

My book, Having Hard Conversations, came out this past month! Check it out. It has been very exciting to see it in print. In my work with schools in the last four weeks, the questions about hard conversations and the nitty gritty particulars of how to have them well just keep a comin'. "What about issues of language and culture and how do those play into a hard conversation?"  "How many minutes should you schedule for each hard conversation?"  "What do you say when the person you speak to responds with an aggressive tone and the comment, 'You don't know what you are talking about'?"  "Do you have something in the book for times like that?"  And so it goes.  And my guess, given everyone's anxiety around giving anything close to a negative piece of feedback, the questions will be never ending. I continue to take notes and respond with, "Great idea for the 2nd edition."

One person came to me this week and said she was in need of the book because she was supporting a colleague who would be the one in her school to announce some layoffs.  What did I have in the book for that hard conversation?  I must admit that layoffs or cancellations of contracts aren't this edition of the book, and I am not, by credential, a human resources professional.  Yet, given the financial climate we are in I felt like I needed to delve into this topic. We need to make necessary but uncomfortable financial decisions, and we be direct and kind with one another when speaking about them. How do we do this well?  This newsletter will hopefully begin the discussion of how to think about your communications around layoffs or any type of  possible professional 'endings' in both an honest and humane way.

If you have any questions, comments or topic suggestions, please feel free to email me at [email protected]. I look forward to hearing from you!

"Budget in For Some Shame, Fear and Anger"

Being Transparent and Proactive

Knowing information is power. People want to know as much as they can about a situation. It helps them feel 'in the know' and as in control as they can be.  Hiding information or avoiding the giving of bad news can make matters worse.  If people are hounding you for information, whispering to others in the lounge about what might be happening or skulking around the main office hoping you are going to say something, you aren't giving out enough information.  If you know something, be proactive and speak.  If you know you don't know anything and have a date in the future when you will, let them know that piece. Nothing is worse than an "Oh, thanks for calling. I've been meaning to talk to you."  When that happens we have the layer of avoidance added on to the layer of the bad news and muddying that water isn't necessary and feels bad.  Whatever is true and authentic and can be said without compromising confidentiality (see an HR professional on that front), find a way to say it professionally. 

What to Expect in Response

We can categorize the types of responses we might get.  People respond to bad news in many ways, but they most likely will respond with fear, anger, shame, or possibly relief. Those responses are in top four, and not necessarily in that order.  If we can 'budget in' for these types of responses we can possibly mitigate the situation by addressing them in the conversation itself.  If you anticipate someone will feel shame, you could say, "Now you might be thinking this action is being taken because of something intrinsic in you and that isn't true.  Please know this isn't a personal attack, it is an organizational action."  If you think a person will respond in fear, consider what the most immediate concern will be and, if you can, try to plan ahead to address it. If the employees might be worried about health insurance, attend to that concern.  "Some of you might immediately be thinking about your children's health needs.  We have thought about this and have some ideas for you..." If you think the person will be angry, think about buffering yourself against some yelling or having the conversation with someone else present or whatever else might work for you in that situation.  Anticipating specific reactions and proactively addressing them won't stop someone from having those feelings, but it will give you some control (Yes, I knew that might be coming, I am prepared...) and shows you have been thinking about the individual's needs.

Sitting with Others in Times of Uncertainty

Given that emotions don't follow a linear trajectory, any initial comments take time to sink in.  Then might come a reaction of anger or concern. So we need to expect to sit with others in this uncomfortable space.  I was told of an assistant superintendent who had an open door policy and said, "Difficult information takes time to digest.  I encourage you to come see me as different concerns arise and we expect you will and welcome you.  We can offer you additional supports whenever you need them.  If you need to come see me at any time, let me know." His secretary was ready to greet teachers coming into the office.  She was generous and immediate in her responses to them as they walked in and in her emails.  The assistant superintendent and the secretary were being as empathic as they could given the complexity and pain of the situation – and their actions and kindness went a long way in keeping a respectful relationship with the employees.

These challenging times requires the ability to fasten one's seat belt for the bumpy ride ahead and to be able to sit with others and ourselves in our anxiety.  Being proactive in offering information and anticipating responses when you give the information will help all parties involved.

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Cool Resources

These are the books that I am reading on the bike at the gym this week. 

Upcoming Events

Each month I will share with you information about a few of my upcoming trainings.
If I am going to be in your area, contact me so we can say hello, hopefully in person!

Feb 12
Having Hard Conversations

4th and 5th year Beginning Teacher Coaches
San Francisco Unified School District
San Francisco, CA

Feb 20
Habits of Mind for the Systems Savvy Educator

Teacher Leaders and Administrators
San Francisco Unified School District
San Francisco, CA

Feb 21
Being Generationally Savvy
 California Association of Teachers of English Conference
Santa Clara, CA

For additional upcoming events, please visit my Web site.

Until next time,


Feel free to forward this newsletter to friends and colleague. You may reprint this newsletter in whole or quote with attribution to Jennifer Abrams and a link to

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© 2009 Jennifer Abrams | Email Jennifer | 4290 Wilkie Way #L, Palo Alto, CA 94306 |  (650) 858-0699


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