Take a Lesson From the Wright Brothers When Faced With Bad News in Business

Instead of shooting the messenger, here's a better way to react when faced with problems in business.

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By Andrew D. Wittman • Jan 5, 2018

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As entrepreneurs, leaders and business owners, we've all experienced that feeling of being hit in the gut when presented with bad news. We hate feeling that pain, and we will go to great lengths to not repeat feeling that pain. When faced with it again (and you will be), how will you react?

You've heard that saying about shooting the messenger. There is a natural tendency to scream and yell at the bearer of bad news. We aren't really targeting the messenger; we are lashing out at the thought of dealing with another round of gut-wrenching discomfort. Here's a better way to react.

Separate fact from truth.

Facts and truths can be hard to discern, even though they are two completely different entities. A fact is merely information -- neutral, independent and objective. When I was a police officer, investigating a crime, I was always in search of the facts. If and when a case went to court, witnesses would swear to tell the truth, but we know, for a fact, that eyewitnesses are unreliable at best. Why? Because people deal in truths, not in facts. The truth is our internal perception of facts and circumstances color our experiences of life.

For example, the fact is that it's 68 degrees outside. The truth is that after three years of living in Hawaii, 68 degrees was downright cold. However, it's also a truth, after spending a winter in Serbia and Kosovo, 40 degrees felt balmy, and 68 degrees was heat stroke territory.

Related: What 'The Dress' Teaches About Seeing Things From Different Perspectives

Facts cannot change, they are unalterable. Truth, on the other hand, is pliable. Knowing this, we can take the facts of any circumstance and perceive them from any angle we want, creating for ourselves, truth or truths.

Heads up, this is what you have been doing your entire life, usually to your detriment, which is why you are so bad at handling "bad news." When someone says, I have some bad news… What is your automatic reaction? Is "bad news" a fact or truth?

Truths are what beliefs are founded on; we act on our truths. For instance, almost everyone knows the medical facts that fast food isn't good for you, but for most of us, the truth is that it's okay. I base this observation on the fact that the fast food industry does billions of dollars in sales each year and the fact that one out of 10 deaths is related to obesity.

Use the neuroscience.

The human machine operates in truths, not facts. There is no exception, no way around it. It is a scientific fact that the brain (the hardware), and the mind and emotions (the software) are designed and built to operate solely based on truths. The hardware that turns facts into truth is called the Reticular Activating System (RAS), a section of the brain the size of your pinky finger, located near the spinal column.

The RAS controls our attention, awareness and focus. It filters all information gathered by what see, hear and touch, and regulates our wakefulness and sleep transitions. It cannot tell the difference between real events and synthetic events, which is why dreams seem so real at the time, even when we experience events in them that bend the laws of physics.

Related: 8 Ways to Improve Sleep by Enhancing Your Dreams

The RAS filters how you perceive your circumstances and environment. It converts each stimulus, all situations, and every set of facts into a truth. Simply, it interprets facts and tells your conscious mind whether to see the glass as half-empty or half-full. Herein lies the key to turning bad news to your advantage.

Your programming and training dictate whether you will perceive the lower truth of half-empty -- choosing to focus on what resources you don't have, imagining negative outcomes, producing worry, anxiety, and stress. Or conversely, whether you will perceive the higher truth of half-full and you will choose to focus on what resources you do have and imagine how to use the situation to your advantage.

Be like the Wright Brothers.

Whenever you do receive bad news, separate out the facts. Recognize, acknowledge and evaluate those facts. Understand that every set of facts has lower truths and higher truths associated with it (half-empty/half-full). The level of truth you choose depends on what you have programmed your RAS to focus on. Here's a real-world example from the Wright Brothers.

Related: Neuroscience Tells Us How to Hack Our Brains for Success

Behold, the bad news of the law of gravity, a fact that cannot be changed or altered. If you step off a building, you will fall to the ground. Unalterable, and to the person who wants to soar, this seems to be bad news. However, the Wright Brothers, having recognized, acknowledged and evaluated the fact of the law of gravity, choose to create a higher truth that they would fly, ostensibly defying gravity.

Their higher truth drove them to the discovery of a subsequent fact, the law of lift and thrust. Their desired outcome, their target, we will fly, and their programmed RAS "half-full" response, eventually led to the discovery of these additional facts: typical takeoff airspeeds for jetliners are 150–180 mph, light aircraft, such as a Cessna 150, take off at around 63 mph. Ultralights have even lower takeoff speeds. And flying is statistically one of the safest ways to travel.

How you deal with "bad news" depends solely on how you have programmed and trained yourself to perceive and interpret facts into the truths that help you, instead of hurting you.

Andrew D. Wittman

Personal and Executive Leadership Advisor

Andrew D. Wittman, PhD, is a United States Marine Corps infantry combat veteran, a former police officer and federal agent. As a Special Agent for the U.S. Capitol Police, Wittman led the security detail for Nancy Pelosi and has personally protected Hillary Clinton, Tom Delay, Trent Lott, King Abdullah of Jordan, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Sir Elton John, as well as Fortune 20 CEOs. As a security contractor for the State Department, he taught high-threat diplomatic security to former Navy SEALS, Marines, Rangers, and Special Forces.

Wittman is founder of the Mental Toughness Training Center, a leadership consultancy specializing in peak performance, team dynamics, resolving conflict in the workplace and is the author of the new book, Ground Zero Leadership: CEO of You (2016). He holds a Ph.D. in Theological Studies, is a guest lecturer at Clemson University and co-hosts the radio call-in show “Get Warrior Tough.”

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