Delivering Bad News

Communicating Well Under Pressure

Board room meeting.

Deliver bad news with honesty and empathy.

© iStockphoto/Yuri_Arcurs

Jack's boss has just told him that, due to budget cuts, several people in his team will have to go. Jack manages a happy, successful, team, and he has no idea how to deliver this bad news.

It's possible that you've experienced a similar situation, or will have to face one like it in the future. By learning how to deliver bad news honestly, openly, and empathetically, you can help to preserve your working relationships, rather than damage them.

In this article, we'll look at the best approaches to use when delivering a difficult message.

The Art of Delivery

Delivering bad news is something that we all have to do at some point. For example, you may need to tell your boss that a major project is over budget, you might have to tell your team about lay-offs, or you may even have to go on camera to say that your product has safety issues.

There are many reasons why you might need to deliver bad news, which is why it's important to know how to deliver it honestly, empathetically, and gracefully.

After all, the way you communicate bad news can have a direct impact on how the receiver perceives and reacts to the situation, and the way that you communicate in this difficult situation is likely be remembered – either positively or negatively – for a long time.

Lessons From the Medical Field

Much of the research on delivering bad news comes from medicine. It's so important, in this context, that the American Medical Association first included it in its code of conduct as far back as 1847.

Physicians and trauma surgeons often have to deliver difficult – or even devastating – news to their patients. We can apply some of the strategies that they've adopted to a business environment.

Research in the Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care outlines the qualities which family members value most in doctors or nurses who communicate bad news. This research shows that – from the receiver's perspective – the four most important factors are (in order of importance):

  1. The news-giver's attitude.
  2. The clarity of the message.
  3. Privacy.
  4. The person's ability to answer questions.

These findings give a useful guide in the world of business as well. Essentially, they show that your attitude and communication skills have an enormous impact on how your message will be received.

Communication Strategies

No matter what type of bad news you need to communicate, the five steps below can help you to deliver it with honesty, empathy, and grace.

1. Prepare Yourself Emotionally

Bad news can be stressful for anyone who's involved in the conversation. To manage this stress, it's important to prepare yourself first.

Take time to calm your mind, focus, and think about what you want to say. If you do this, your emotions are less likely to get the better of you during the conversation.

By speaking in a calm and clear manner, you'll demonstrate that you're prepared and professional. As such, you're less likely to make the situation worse.

Try to empathize   with the other people and take time to work on this before you meet with them. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine how you'd react if you were in their position. What might they lose as a result of this bad news? How might they feel? Use your understanding of their perspective to shape how you deliver the bad news.

To explore possible outcomes and to prepare for difficult questions which might come up, consider using Role-Play   to rehearse your delivery of bad news.

Explore other stress management techniques, such as deep breathing, which can help you calm your body and mind. Remember, the more composed and professional you are when you deliver the bad news, the calmer the other person is likely to be.

2. Identify Solutions

The next step is to identify some solutions, if there are any available. You may not be able to make things right, but you can minimize upset.

Try to identify several solutions before you meet with the other person. This is essential because, once your meeting begins, it might become emotionally charged and you may struggle to think of answers under pressure. However, if you have solutions ready to go, you'll demonstrate professionalism and you'll show that you're focused on moving forward.

For instance, imagine that you've got to announce a major change in your organization. Consider coming to the meeting with several ideas on how your team can adapt to this change quickly and easily, and try to identify positives in the situation.

3. Pay Attention to Setting and Timing

Unless you have to deliver bad news to a group, choose a private setting for your conversation. Privacy allows the other person the freedom to respond and cope in a way that's comfortable for them, which is a key part of helping them to move forward. Turn your cell phone off, and make sure that you won't be interrupted.

Next, pay attention to timing. It's often best to deliver bad news promptly, but without skipping the essential preparation that we have just covered. "Sitting" on bad news can start rumors, and it might also damage your reputation.

Although email is often the fastest way to communicate, it is a terrible channel for delivering bad news. It's best to hold a personal meeting to do this, because you can use the right tone of voice and body language   to communicate with empathy – these subtle signals are often lost over the phone, and are nonexistent with email.

4. Be Genuine

When the time comes to deliver the message, try to be authentic and compassionate, and treat the other person with respect and dignity. Don't try to "sugarcoat" the truth; it's best to be forthright and honest about what's happened, and about what you're going to do to make it right.

Remember that your attitude and the clarity of your message are two very important components in this conversation. Be open, clear, and honest.

If you're responsible for the situation, try to explain frankly how your actions contributed to the event. It may help to build trust with the other person by openly communicating what your role was, and by apologizing. Don't try to blame someone else or falsely justify your actions; this is ethically wrong, and it can damage your reputation.

When you deliver bad news, take care to validate the other person's emotions. If he or she says, "I'm angry!," try to show that you understand. For example, you might say "I understand that you're angry, and you have every right to be."

If you repeat words and phrases that the other person uses – "angry," for example – it shows that you're listening, that you understand, and that it's OK that they feel the way that they do.

Once the other person has calmed down, ask whether he or she has any questions about the situation. Use active listening skills  , so that you hear and understand what they say, and address any concerns that they may have.

5. Where Appropriate, Focus on the Positive

If appropriate, try to find a positive in the situation: it can help to remember the phrase "Every cloud has a silver lining."

However, be sensitive with this. If the news you're delivering is truly bad, it will be counterproductive to point out positives.

Key Points

No matter what your role is, you've probably had to deliver some form of bad news before. The way that you communicate during these tense situations can affect your career in any number of ways, which is why learning how to communicate this effectively is so important.

Take time to prepare before you deliver the news; this gives you a chance to center yourself, and decreases the likelihood that your emotions will influence your message. Come to the meeting with solutions, and make sure that you're honest and genuine during the discussion.

Remember, delivering bad news well can actually strengthen your relationship with colleagues. Therefore, it's definitely worth learning how to do it successfully!

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Comment (1)
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    James, this is a very helpful article standing up to reality. I like most people don't relish communicating bad news but doing it is better that worrying about doing it and the preparation you suggest will always help.

    On point 5: my experience has been that you can build the positive up.
    Typically knowing is better than not knowing. Communicating it allows you to engage and receive the support of others. My focus is typically how can I help in these difficult times. I have yet to be convinced 'every' cloud has a silver lining, yet with time and support even the most difficult situations can be managed and improved upon.

    Michael

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