If you're a leader, and especially if you've ever struggled with how to give a colleague or employee negative feedback about something they've done, it's worth 15 minutes of your time to watch Arizona Senator John McCain's speech to the Senate yesterday about Obamacare--and their performance in general.
As you may know, McCain, who just had cranial surgery and received a brain cancer diagnosis, rose from his sickbed to fly to Washington so he could cast his vote in the Senate--a vote that Republicans, with a majority of only two senators, desperately need. Thanks to McCain's vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was able to open debate on an Obamacare repeal, otherwise he would not have had the votes to even bring the matter up for discussion. Since then, two Republican proposals, one to repeal and replace Obamacare, and another to simply repeal it, have both gone down to defeat.
But before we go on to follow the twists and turns of our tortuous legislative process, let's stop and consider the incredibly powerful message McCain delivered upon arriving in the Senate chamber. Because he wasn't just there to cast a vote. He was there to give some serious criticism to his fellow senators, which he did in an impassioned, wise, and heartfelt speech. He displayed such emotional intelligence that not only should his speech be required watching for any leader who wants to know how to tell people nicely that they've screwed up--he also got a standing ovation from the very senators he was taking to task.
Here's what made McCain's speech so incredibly effective:
1. He started with love.
"As I stand here today--looking a little worse for wear I'm sure--I have a refreshed appreciation for the protocols and customs of this body, and for the other ninety-nine privileged souls who have been elected to this Senate," McCain said early in his speech. He went on to say that, although he has had other rewarding careers, his service in the Senate is the most important job of his life.
That's a great lesson whenever you have negative feedback to deliver. Begin by strengthening your bond and opening your listeners' ears by saying how much you respect and value them.
2. He showed vulnerability.
Very clearly, McCain is angry at his fellow senators for their inability to come together with a bill to replace Obamacare. But the emotion he projected most throughout his speech was vulnerability. In so many ways, throughout his speech, he communicated the sentiment that: I'm in this with you.
The most striking such moment for me came right at the start of the speech, when he mentioned that in the past he's held the (largely ceremonial) post of president of the Senate, adding, "that's as close as I'll ever be to a presidency." The line got a laugh--it was, of course, a reference to his defeat as Republican candidate for president in 2008. But the underlying message was clear: I've had failures, too, and they've hurt me.
Few things are as powerful in communication as showing vulnerability. Letting others know you're not an invincible tower of strength will make them more willing to trust you and be open with you as well. And really good things can happen when people trust each other.
3. He described the problem in very specific terms.
McCain was attacking a problem that's been under discussion for years: The worsening partisanship throughout our government that prevents Republicans and Democrats from working together on pretty much anything, to the point where each party seems to care more about getting credit for a win than actually passing legislation that would advance its cause. As a result, he told his Senate colleagues, "We're getting nothing done, my friends."
Although every person in the room, and even most of us watching on TV or over the internet knew perfectly well what he was talking about, McCain made sure to name some specifics. "All we've really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court," he said. "Our healthcare insurance system is a mess. We all know it, those who support Obamacare and those who oppose it. Something has to be done. We Republicans have looked for a way to end it and replace it with something else without paying a terrible political price. We haven't found it yet, and I'm not sure we will. All we've managed to do is make more popular a policy that wasn't very popular when we started trying to get rid of it."
That's an essential piece of delivering any kind of criticism. Even if you're absolutely certain that the people you're talking to know precisely what's gone wrong, always name the specific issue you're trying to address and give a concrete example of what needs to change as well as a big-picture view. "We're getting nothing done," was very effective but very abstract. "All we've really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch" is very precise and a perfect illustration of that large, abstract statement.
4. He took responsibility for his part.
If you're giving negative feedback, it's essential to acknowledge any part you yourself played in things going wrong. McCain made sure to do that. All members of the Senate had played some role in fostering partisanship, he said. "Certainly I have. Sometimes, I've let my passion rule my reason," he continued. "Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy."
By admitting that you had a part in creating a problem, you invite your employees or colleagues to join you in working on the solution. It invites them to hold you accountable for making things better, just as you will do with them. It's a powerful motivator to work on solving a big problem.
5. He said why it was important to do better.
One of the most striking parts of the speech was McCain's impassioned plea to his fellow senators to take their work very, very seriously. "This place is important," he began. "The work we do is important. Our strange rules and seemingly eccentric practices that slow our proceedings and insist on our cooperation are important."
In fact, he went on to say, the Senate is just as important as the presidency. "We are an important check on the powers of the Executive. Our consent is necessary for the President to appoint jurists and powerful government officials and in many respects to conduct foreign policy. Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the President's subordinates. We are his equal!"
And just in case that didn't make it sound important enough, he added this: "The success of the Senate is important to the continued success of America. This country--this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country--needs us to help it thrive. That responsibility is more important than any of our personal interests or political affiliations."
When you're delivering negative feedback and you want your employees or colleagues to do better, never forget to tell them why it matters and what the stakes are.
6. He ended with love.
Once you've delivered negative feedback or other hard-to-hear news, it's great to finish the conversation by reinforcing your bond with your listeners, reminding them how much you appreciate and depend on them.
And so, as he had at the beginning of his speech, McCain ended by underscoring his personal connection to other members of the Senate. He gave them heartfelt thanks for their well wishes during his illness. He said that after a few days in Washington, some of which would be spent working on passage of a different bill, he would go home to treat his illness. He said he planned to return, joking that he would give some senators "cause to regret all the nice things you said about me." Then he ended with this: "And I hope to impress on you again that it is an honor to serve the American people in your company."