However hard it is for you to be the bearer of bad tidings and to take responsibility for getting the delivery right, at least you’ll have a chance to prepare. At a minimum, preparation consists of three stages:
- Determining the content to be communicated.
- Anticipating what’s likely to happen during the delivery.
- Figuring out how to manage yourself throughout the process.
Bad news at work includes things like a project proposal being turned down, or a person being at risk of losing their resources, status, or even their job.
Giving people bad news is different from giving feedback. Even if the feedback is critical, it’s informational, and may have a variety of different outcomes. Bad news can involve a warning, rejection, disappointment, or termination — and concerns specific consequences likely to trigger some sense of loss or hardship.
Step 1: Structuring Your Communication
Organize the content of your message. What’s the main point? What are the critical items that the receiver must take away from the conversation — and potentially repeat to others? Can you express them in just a few words? You may find this format useful:
- Because: The reason for, or purpose of, the announcement, and/or the circumstances that brought you to this point
- Therefore: What is happening and/or will happen now, and what they need to do in response
- Next: What else they should expect
Get very clear about your role in the situation. Are you the decision-maker or a messenger, advocate, or helper? Your role will affect the tone and content of your delivery.
Write everything down. That’s the only way to make sure you’ve detailed the message completely. And if anyone else is participating in the discussion with you, identify which points you’ll cover and which ones they’ll handle, so there’s no hesitation during the interaction.
Step 2: Anticipating the Recipient’s Response
Plan for the things you can’t control. Consider how the recipient of the bad news may react. What questions, fears, and other reactions are they likely to express — and what about the ones they might have but not express? If this is an employment issue, be sure you’ve met with HR and incorporated their input.
Prepare your environment. Do you have a private space in which to conduct the conversation? Sometimes it’s helpful to have a bit of background noise rather than dead quiet, particularly if there are other people within earshot. Depending on the circumstances, it could be useful to have a box of tissues or a bottle of water for the recipient. If you’re putting the kibosh on someone’s carefully crafted plans, you might want a whiteboard to map out the alternatives or next steps. Set the chairs so that you can face the recipient directly. If the news will be personally distressing, try to protect the recipient from sitting in a fishbowl office facing out, or having to walk down a long hallway past other employees once they’re heard the bad news.
Step 3: Managing Yourself Throughout the Process
Cushion your schedule. You don’t want to run from another meeting into a tough discussion like this one. So before the recipient comes in, make sure the room is set, your notes, and any other necessary documents are in order, and you’re physically and mentally settled. You also may want extra time on the back end in case the recipient has additional questions or needs time to recover before leaving the room.
Manage your body. Being composed and under control — not to the point of being Great Stone Face, but calm and confident — makes it easier for the recipient to accept what you’re saying: They’ll see you know what you’re doing and you know how things work. So take up your full space before the recipient comes in. No matter how nervous you may feel, drop your shoulders and broaden them, lengthen your spine to your full height, and breathe deeply. Place both feet flat on the floor. Face the recipient as squarely as possible, with your hands on the table, and move deliberately.
Manage your thoughts. Sometime before the interaction, sit quietly and write for 10 minutes about a time you handled a tough circumstance well. Or, if you prefer, write about a situation from a movie, novel, or TV show. This will help prime your brain for what you need to do. Remember that your goal is not just to communicate information, but to cue the recipient to accept the content and behave appropriately.
After the interaction has concluded, sit quietly for a few minutes. Think about how the recipient responded, jot down any necessary notes, and consider whether follow-up is necessary. Give yourself a mental pat on the back for getting through it, and note any helpful feedback to remember for next time. When you’re breathing easily again, go on with the rest of your day.