Delivering bad news is rarely easy, neither for messenger nor recipient. It is awkward for the bearer of the bad news, and the other party will often feel vulnerable as the receiver. But when it is done right, sharing bad news can improve a situation for all concerned.
When you find yourself in the position of messenger, and want to avoid a shoot-out (incidentally, don’t shoot the messenger’ is probably one of the worst things you could say in such circumstances), it is not so much what we say but how we say it that makes the difference. The best way to approach the situation is to prepare for the conversation, think about what you need to communicate and how you are going to put it across in order to keep the peace and maintain the other person’s dignity at all times.
For some useful pointers on how to keep your script on track, try out the following five tips which should help you to get that difficult conversation right.
1. Do it ASAP. Hard-to-have conversations only become more difficult if you put the inevitable off. Once you’ve had a think about how to deliver the bad news, you should look to have that conversation as soon as is feasible. This is particularly the case if the information needs to come from you; the conversation you will eventually have to have will be much harder if someone else has shared the news first.
2. Get straight to the point. Tell them the reason for your meeting at the start of the conversation, and communicate the main facts straightaway. Beating around the bush and withholding key information will hamper the interaction and may cause frustration to the other party.
3. Put yourself in their shoes. Both when preparing for the conversation and once you have broached the subject, try to anticipate and understand their perspective and reactions to the issue at hand. Demonstrating you can identify with their position will encourage the other party to be more receptive and open to hearing and discussing the bad news you have to share.
4. Separate the news from the person. It is easy, though erroneous, to interpret bad news as a personal attack. While any offence is more likely to derive from the other party’s reaction to the news rather than your intentions presenting the information â€“ assuming it is not your goal to make the bad news personal â€“ you must be explicit in differentiating between the news and the individual. Separate the specifics of the situation, especially where the person may have made a mistake or been at fault, from their competence or attributes as a person.
5. End by agreeing to a plan for the next step. Tie up the conversation with a proactive agreement on what to do next, albeit only an arrangement to meet again at specified and scheduled time. This ends the exchange on a positive and looks forward to the future with a joint view on where you are headed.