A garden center owner sold a ficus tree to a lawyer who wanted to put it in the window of her street-front law office. We could make a lot of lawyer jokes about the reason the leaves fell off the tree after the lawyer put it in the window, but ficus trees are finicky about where they like to sit, and every time you move one, the leaves may fall off.
The attorney asked to exchange the tree. The owner explained. The woman demanded. The owner gave her a new tree. The lawyer put it in the window. The leaves fell off and the attorney sued the garden center.
Getting your message across effectively without losing the client is tricky, but Patricia L. Harms and Deborah Britt Roebuck report in the December 2010 issue of Business Communication Quarterly, a way to give feedback using a model that provides for a positive return. They argue that “Feedback aligns workplace behavior with the overall goals of a team or an organization.” While Harms and Roebuck focus on providing performance feedback to employees, their models could be used to give good or bad news to customers, vendors, or others.
For good news, Harms and Roebuck suggest using the BET method:
With the BET model, you focus on what happened, its effect, and saying thank you.
For bad news—which is the harder news to deliver—Harms and Roebuck suggest the BEAR method:
In this model, once the behavior and its effect are identified, Harms and Roebuck suggest finding an alternative behavior or solution that would correct, or make up for, the effect. The result can be reported as either what might happen if the alternative isn’t applied (negative outcome or consequences) or what might happen if the alternative is applied (a more positive outcome or consequences).
The BEAR model provides one or two places to focus positive energy that could result in a better outcome.
Using the BEAR method, the garden shop owner might have said:
Ficus trees are finicky and don’t like to be moved (behavior). They tend to lose their leaves whenever they are moved to new locations (effect).
The alternative needs to be a solution that both parties like. The garden center owner needs the attorney to leave the ficus tree alone for three weeks. The attorney is a customer who needs to be heard. So, the garden center owner could have said:
We need to leave the tree alone for three weeks. If it still has no leaves after three weeks, I’ll deliver a replacement tree myself (alternative). There’s a chance the ficus tree just won’t work in your window. If after three weeks, it’s not working, we’ll find a new tree that will work for you or I’ll refund your money (result).
When you have to give negative feedback, try the BEAR method, channeling as much positive energy into the alternative so that the result is one that both parties find palatable.
And now it’s okay to make a joke about how the ficus tree kept losing its leaves because it didn’t like the spot in that particular lawyer’s window.