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10 tips for delivering bad news

Giving someone bad news is never easy, but there are right ways and wrong ways of going about it. Calvin Sun has some advice on the best methods for sharing unpleasant information.

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.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

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.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

12 comments
Tahawai
Tahawai

Were possible, never give bad news on a Friday. It can ruin weekends

pranoken
pranoken

I agree with the points of author. Sometimes we should setting up more suitable enviroment to say something bad.

WritingEducator
WritingEducator

All of the points are well taken, and I would like to add my personal recommendation: REHEARSE what you are going to say. I have had to terminate and lay off people - among other "bad news" that I have had to deliver, and I always practice what I am going to say. The primary reason is that I want to be able to focus on the other person and do the things that Mr. Sun recommends. Another reason to rehearse is that whatever you say, you want to ensure that your words allow the other person to "save face" - no matter what the circumstance. It's not that they're going to feel all warm~n~fuzzy when you're finished, but at least in their fear, anger, sense of injustice you have done your best not to impugn the person's character especially when the bad news really doesn't have to do with anything they have done. The other thing rehearsing does for you is that it allows you to create a message that's brief. A brief albeit COMPLETE message is best. There's no good purpose to prolonging anyone's agony - even your own. If you can, anticipate any questions and come up with honest answers - again avoiding dragging out the meeting. You also want to figure out EVERY step you're going to take before and after the meeting. Are you going to have to escort the person to their desk for their personal belongings? Will they need to turn in a key? Does security get involved? What's the best time of day to deliver the message? If you have to do it earlier in the day, maybe you can give them the afternoon off? Generally, close to the end of the workday is best. I think it's best for them NOT stay at work to prevent an incident or incite/upset their co-workers. Make CERTAIN you know what's supposed to happen (read the policies) from the time you close the door for the meeting until you get the person out the door - or whatever should happen after the meeting. Usually, I have been with a Human Resources person or my manager, and too many times they only make the situation WORSE by stuttering, stammering, and "not knowing what to say." If that happens, simply refocus the conversation back to your point (related to whatever nonsense may have spewed forth), and wrap up the meeting. Frankly, it infuriates me that many people don't take the delivery of bad news as seriously as it warrants. Rehearsing allows you to script yourself, anticipate reactions, and smoothly get through an incredibly awful situation without losing your cool AND remaining in control. In the end, the reason for knowing what you're going to say and delivering the message concisely and clearly is for the benefit of the person receiving it. You really want to be able to focus on their reactions. If you are sure and calm, you'll convey that to the person and help them get through the whole thing increasing the chances that the bad news will be accepted without an unforeseen, unfortunate, and unnecessary incident.

conceptual
conceptual

There is no constructive way to communicate with people who think they own your labor, services and skillset.

evan
evan

The 11th tip might be -- don't wait to give bad news. If it is truly bad news, it should travel fast. If you wait, then you become part of the bad news.

hassan2k
hassan2k

Don't ever come to your boss with a disaster without a resolution for it.

jkameleon
jkameleon

A simple "Mwaaahahahaha! Losers!" can work wanders in such situation. By putting things in a proper perspective, it effectively suppresses the asset's immediate emotional response.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

it's just the order to do it. 3. "Get to the point" 4. "After you give the bad news..." (embellishment)

AndrewRLong
AndrewRLong

Great points, cogent arguments. It's clear you have actual experience with this.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

Beginning the "you're being laid off" conversation with "Mwaaahahahaha! Losers!" that would be much more likely to inflame the emotion than suppress it. Ditto with "we're cutting your pay." Hopefully YOU still have good hospitalization coverage. You'll probably need it. "Mwaaahahahaha!"