No one loves the messenger who brings bad news. — Sophocles
During the course of your career, you may have to deliver bad news to someone. That bad news could go to a subordinate, a client, or your boss. The way you handle the situation and yourself can have an impact on your career and your stress level. Here are some tips.
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1: Set and manage expectations beforehand if you can
Sometimes, bad news comes completely unexpectedly. A plane can suddenly lose power and crash. An apparently healthy 18 year old can collapse and pass away.
Other times, however, if the bad news comes as a complete surprise, it means someone failed to fully prepare the recipient ahead of time. If you believe that something you attempt might turn out unfavorably for a client or customer, let that person know first. Above all, be careful about guaranteeing results or saying that a particular outcome is a "sure thing." If necessary, outline all the risks and potential issues that might prevent the desired result.
You may not always be able to do this. But if you can set expectations, your job of delivering bad news will be much easier.
2: Do a proper setup for the moment
Don't deliver bad news casually or in passing. Set up a time to talk with the other person. If you need to deliver the news right at the moment, say, "I need to talk with you about [the matter]." In other words, establish a setting and a context for the conversation, instead of just springing the news.
3: Get to the point
I've never known bad news to improve with keeping.
The late actor Sir Alec Guinness delivered this memorable line in the 1980 movie Little Lord Fauntleroy. Yes, some people do like to preface the bad news with background information and details of everything they did and everything they tried. Better, though, simply to cut to the chase and tell the person the bad news. Chances are, that person won't even be listening to all your preliminary words anyway.
4: Explain the background and give details
After you give the bad news, you can provide background and details. In particular, you will want to explain what happened as well as the steps you took. The person who gets your bad news will want to know this information and probably has a right to know it.
5: Be sitting down
Delivering the news to someone while both of you are sitting offers two advantages. First, if God forbid the person should faint, the chances of injury are decreased. Second, a discussion that happens while seated has less chance of getting emotionally out of control. In plain terms: it is harder to physically fight someone when you're seated than when you're standing.
6: Be sensitive to physical position
In the same way, be sensitive to how you are seated relative to the other person. If you're behind a desk, keep in mind that that desk can serve as a psychological as well as physical barrier. If you feel comfortable doing so, and if you believe the other person is comfortable, consider sitting on the same side, or at least sitting at right angles. Either way, you will have signaled that are "on that person's side."
7: Separate yourself from the message
Sometimes the bad news you deliver is not your fault. Even so, the person who hears it will take out his or frustration on you. The classic example, of course, is the help desk analyst who tells a caller that the system or network will be down for another three hours.
If you are that hapless analyst, be prepared to be the messenger who gets shot. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory. However, the more you can remind yourself that they aren't upset at you personally, the greater the chances of keeping your stress under control.
8: Be sympathetic
Remember that when you deliver bad news to a person, you must deal with two issues: the technical matter of the news itself, but also the emotional reaction to the bad news. In fact, this emotional reaction is the aspect of your encounter that is far more critical. To reduce the chances of being the shot messenger, let the other person know that you are aware of their emotional reaction. You need not be a Dr. Phil, but a simple "I'm sorry about this situation" or "I'm sorry to have to tell you this" can work wonders.
9: Reframe the situation
Maybe the bad news you are delivering concerns your (or your group's) inability to achieve some objective. Nonetheless, is there any silver lining news you can give? In other words, can you reframe the situation?
Maybe they didn't get the 20% productivity increase they expected; maybe instead they got only 15%. Rather than compare 20% to 15%, you might want to compare 15% to 0%. Similarly, maybe you were able to restore only three of the four weeks of data they lost. Of course, they would have preferred to recover all four weeks. But isn't three weeks of recovered data better than none? This approach is not meant as en endorsement of mediocrity, but rather an attempt to get the other person to see things a different way.
10: Offer alternatives
If you must deliver bad news, maybe that bad result need not be the end of things. Do you have a plan to address or resolve the situation? If so, keep it in mind and offer to share it with the other person or group after you have delivered the bad news. In doing so, you will demonstrate a willingness to work through the problem and an ability to think and plan ahead. If the person receiving bad news is a key client or your boss, planning ahead could be valuable to your future.
Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.