Can You Deliver Bad News Without Leaving Bad Feelings?

We’ve all heard the cliché, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but….” Face it; unless you are some kind of heartless cad, no one enjoys delivering bad news.

As we kick off another year filled with headlines about job losses, business closings, cutbacks, and home foreclosures, the grim reality is that more and more of us will be put in the painful position of delivering some kind of bad news to someone.

So, how do you deliver bad news without creating bad feelings? Frankly, you can’t. No matter how hard you try to soften the blow, the recipient is going to feel awful and possibly resentful toward you. But, how you deliver the news can have a huge impact on the way someone emotionally processes it– and that can influence the degree to which you look like the bad guy.

Here are some proven guidelines I’ve shared with clients that can help:

Do it as quickly as possible.

Bad news has a way leaking prematurely and moves faster than an Internet virus. Rumors start, people panic, and productivity drops like a bungee jumper. Organize your message and schedule to deliver it in the shortest time lapse possible. This will help prevent the spread of out-of control speculation.

Deliver the bad news face-to-face

Whether one-on-one, in small groups, or in large groups, the ability to look recipients of bad news in the eyes demonstrates professionalism. Using email or other technology, no matter how convenient or practical it may be, makes you look like a coward.

Get to the point quickly

Don’t beat around the bush. A simple format is:

  • Open by disclosing the problem. Be candid and succinct. Use only a few sentences to put things into context.
  • State the resulting consequences (the bad news).
  • Reveal all help, options, resources, etc. available to assist those affected.
  • Allow time for questions. When people feel victimized, they often feel they have lost their voice and want to be heard. Before the meeting, take the time to anticipate and write down the questions you may be asked. Then, prepare succinct, compassionate, and constructive responses.

Be prepared for angry responses

This is an important part of preparing for possible questions. Many people will be bitter and feel the need to vent with rhetorical questions like, “What am I supposed to do now?” “What if this happened to you?” “How can you live with yourself?” As hard as it might be, do not show anger or frustration. Be patient. Listen. Remain calm. Show empathy and gently guide the conversation back to the information, options, or resources available to assist those affected by the situation.

Speak from the heart, not a script

Words, vocal inflections, and body language must be used to demonstrate compassion and empathy. Offer heartfelt apologies when appropriate. Look at the face(s) of those to whom you are speaking. Let your face show genuine concern. I strongly recommend taking a little time to videotape a role play scenario of you giving bad news to someone. How we think we look and sound is often quite different than the way we are perceived. And, unfortunately, sometimes perception is reality.

The most important job of any leader is to be a clear and credible communicator. The hardest job is to be the one who must convey bad news. Leaders who want to be believed and respected when times are good must choose their words and their actions wisely when times are bad.