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Communicating Bad News

Delivering bad news, whether communicating up, down, or across the organization, is a difficult task. Two questions often come to mind on this dilemma:

(1) How to structure the bad news message and

(2) How to communicate the bad news.

How to Structure the Bad News Message

Answer the tough questions up front. The best way to structure a bad news message is to answer the tough questions up front. For example, if a manager must announce layoffs, he should answer his employees’ specific questions first rather than beat around the bush. The employees’ questions will likely be: How does this affect me? What is my severance package? When will this take place?

Be direct. Be honest, but be sensitive. Avoid language that attempts to evade responsibility or obscure the issue. In addition, speak in the active voice to show that you accept accountability. For example: “I have reviewed your request for a marketing assistant, but unfortunately I can’t squeeze any more out of the budget this year.”

Use clear language. Too often, unclear statements result in misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Rehearse what you need to say beforehand to prevent making any misleading or vague statements. Use straightforward sentences and language to convey the bad news.

Focus on what can be done. In the midst of a crisis, we often react negatively to the things we cannot control. Or we express what cannot be done. In a bad-news message, focus on the positive, on what can be done. For example, if talking with a customer about a delayed shipment, replace the negative language, “We cannot possibly fill your order by June 19,” with positive language, “We will be able to fill your order by June 30.”

How to Deliver the Bad News Message

Avoid e-mail. If you’ve ever opened an e-mail containing bad news, you may have sensed a lack of respect and empathy, if not blatant passive-aggression. No doubt, e-mail is a highly impersonal method of communicating bad news. Most people can better interpret and accept the bad news message when it is delivered in person.

Use one-to-one dialogue. Face-to-face communication allows for gestures and body language to help in conveying the tone and genuine expression of regret and concern. It also allows for interaction and feedback, and possibly greater acceptance of the bad news. If face-to-face interaction is not available, use the phone. Since the person you are talking to cannot read your body language or see your facial expressions, it is critical that you keep your voice energetic and your tone positive.

Listen. The recipients of the bad news will likely have questions and concerns. Show them that you understand their feelings by focusing on what they’re saying. Take notes, ask clarifying questions, and paraphrase their concerns. For example, say, “I hear you. I know this isn’t easy to accept.”

Be calm and composed. Pay close attention to your behavior and attitude when under stress. It is easy to become consumed with the reactions of others and resort to defensive behaviors. Maintain control and self-monitor your feelings, words, tone of voice, and body language.

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