When I got kicked out of clown school in Paris, (yes, you read that right. How I ended up in clown school in the first place is a whole other story.
Suffice to say, always read the small print, particularly if it’s in a foreign language. When they gave me the oversized boot, let’s just say the conversation could have gone better.
Each student had an end-of-term interview to discuss progress and were told the many things they were doing wrong.
Such was the French pedagogy, “not bad” was by far the highest accolade. For a bunch of clowns, they took things very seriously. It had been rumoured they might take this opportunity to thin the shudder (no joke, shudder is a collective noun for clowns) but we all thought surely that was only in extreme cases — and I can mime a glass wall as well as the next person.
I entered the professor’s office. She swivelled in her chair, tapping her fingers like a Bond villain. She shuffled papers on her desk and, without looking up at me, said in French: “I think, no.”
There was a very long pause. I was thinking, ‘No, what? No, nothing bad to say? No problems? No, your outfit doesn’t match?’
Then, a dreadful inkling crept in.
“Non?” I inquired, in my best B-grade GCSE-level French accent.
“Oui, non,” was her reply, which didn’t help my confusion.
“Like, non… really non? No, no?” I said, trying to get things clear.
“Why?” I asked. Although if I hadn’t been so utterly surprised by the whole thing I could probably have listed a dozen reasons, most of them relating to Friday morning acrobatics class.
Yes, that’s right, acrobatics. Who knew there would be acrobatics? (I’m telling you, read the fine print).
Her grand explanation, delivered with the sentiment of a brick wall was: “This soil is not good for your flower.”
I can attest, it is no more comforting when said in French.
Oh well, that clarified everything — not. I stood there in stunned silence until she shuffled some more papers, cleared her throat and motioned for me to show in the next person.
Now I take great delight in the retelling of this story, but at the time I was devastated. I left her office into a waiting crowd of fellow students, crying in disbelief and hurt. I stewed on it for weeks! As odd as the place was, and clearly not at all what I thought I’d signed up for, it was still the first time I’d ever really failed anything. The first time I’d ever been fired. It stung.
And, while this could very well be a piece about how often our greatest disappointments lead to our greatest opportunities, that’s for another column.
Instead, my point in sharing all this is continuing our look at how to deliver bad news — with this the perfect example of how not to.
Looking over that circus of an interview (pun absolutely intended) it’s easy to reverse-engineer some pretty clear steps on how to deliver bad news, at least better than she did.
What would have helped in that situation?
Could she have handled it so that the bad news felt less traumatic?
What can we do when we’re faced with a task like hers, because we often are, in one form or another.
That’s exactly what we’ll be focusing on next week. A practical guide to what to expect and how to handle letting someone down, clearly and effectively, while maintaining the relationship and minimising the upset, with no clowning around!
• Julia Pitt is a trained success coach and certified NLP practitioner on the team at Benedict Associates. For further information contact Julia on 705-7488, www.juliapittcoaching.com.</i>