Delivering bad news isn’t fun. You’re not supposed to like it. If you do, you probably shouldn’t be trusted with the authority to do it.
Unfortunately, having to deliver bad news is a part of life. We all have difficult conversations every day. Maybe you’re not firing people left and right or announcing lay-offs each week, but you likely do need to tell people things that they aren’t thrilled to hear.
Maybe you need to disapprove a recommendation. Or tell a great employee that she didn’t get a promotion. Or just let the window company rep know that, while you appreciate the free estimate, you’re simply not going to spend $20k on windows. Regardless of the message, it’s not an easy task. You don’t want to upset people or sacrifice relationships. Which is good — it shouldn’t be easy — it means you’re more likely to handle the situation with empathy.
But with that benefit comes a liability. As most people try to reduce the discomfort of these difficult situations, they end up making everything worse. So before you go too far trying to soften the blow, be wary of these common mistakes.
Put it off.
In the zeal to fully prepare and find the ideal time, it’s easy to delay having the conversation. After all, you don’t want to do it, so your mind is actively looking for rationalizations to procrastinate.
The moment you decide to put something off until tomorrow, the urgency drops way down. It becomes easier to delay it repeatedly until it can’t be ignored. Maybe you’re secretly hoping that it will just resolve itself and you won’t need to ever deal with it.
Unfortunately, problems rarely get better with time. Minor problems become worse if they’re left ignored. One-time performance issues become habits without correction. Then, when you do eventually bring it up, not only do you need to fix a bigger problem, but you need to explain why you’re so late in doing so.
I’ve never had anyone be happy that I waited to give them bad news. It only limited the timeframe that they had to respond.
Don’t delay. If you can tackle it right away, do so. If you need some time to prepare, give yourself a deadline. Either way, don’t rationalize a delay — it will only drag it out and make the eventual conversation that much worse.
Make small talk.
No one likes small talk in the best of times, much less as a prelude to bad news. I doubt that you actually want to hearing anyone’s opinion on the weather — especially now with so many climate change deniers running around.
Get right to the point. Kicking off a difficult conversation with small talk shows a lack of respect for the other person’s time. It also confuses the situation and will create a bigger surprise when you try to awkwardly transition into the real purpose of the conversation. “Well John, I’m glad you’re excited about all this sunshine. I suppose you’ll get to enjoy it even more now…”
Show people that you appreciate both the gravity of the situation and their time by being direct.
Confuse the message.
If somebody were going to give you some bad news, would you want her to tell you straight or soften it with some vague wording?
Everyone always says they’d like to hear the message straight. Yet when those same people have to deliver bad news, they feel the need to soften it with unnecessary fluff.
It’s natural to want to comfort people. But offering a consolation, “It’s not you, it’s me,” is the opposite of helpful. Telling people that they’re doing everything right while holding back a promotion isn’t in anyone’s best interest.
It’s not you. It’s them. That’s why you’re telling them. They have a problem and it’s your job to communicate that problem to them. Otherwise, how will they be able to do anything about it?
Be direct. Outline the clear takeaway you want them to have and make sure you communicate that point. Show some empathy, but don’t let it confuse the message. It’ll only limit their ability to take the needed action.
Open things up for debate.
It’s natural to waver on your position when people start pushing back. And it’s important to listen to their concerns. But try to avoid getting into a debate over a decision that’s already been made — it only gives people false hope.
Telling someone that maybe something can change down the road, when you know it won’t, is misleading and sets you up for a worse discussion later. They’ll need to decide what’s the best option for them moving forward. If you mislead them with inaccurate information — even if you’re just trying to soften the blow — you’re impairing their ability to make the best choice.
One disappointing conversation and a tough decision now is infinitely preferable to dragging it out over the next year.
Try to wing it.
There’s no reason to memorize your lines as if you’re giving a speech. A scripted delivery tends to come off as insincere. While it often helps to have your first couple of lines worked out in advance to get through those awkward first moments, try to transition into a more natural conversation after that.
But as people become upset, it’s easy to get thrown off course. Before you know it, you find yourself arguing about superficial tangents that have no real bearing on the situation you want to cover. Preparing your points in advance helps you stay on point and course correct as needed.
What’s the main message that you want to convey? What are your supporting points to back up your perspective? And what, if any, action do you want them to leave the conversation with? Without at least some preparation, it’s too easy to leave a conversation without someone understanding the message or agreeing to take the next steps.
Which just sets you up to have another one later.
Overall, just try to treat people with the respect that they deserve.
It’s difficult to go wrong if you just try to treat people with respect.
Respect for their time. Respect for their ability to hear the bad news. And respect for their ability to make responsible decisions once they know it.
It’s not complicated. But it’s also not easy. And it’s not supposed to be.