How To Deliver Difficult News Without Making Matters Worse

No one – or no one in their right mind, at least – looks forward to delivering bad news. Indeed, one of the most persistent problems faced by managers and even HR specialists (who are trained to deal with just such tricky scenarios) is the detrimental effect of their own unease when it comes to this least pleasant of tasks.

The reality is that all managers will at some point have to have that difficult conversation with members of their team. The need to understand how to do it well – framing the message appropriately, timing it well and delivering it sympathetically – and developing the skills to do that with tact and empathy are therefore essential.

No matter how unwelcome the news you have to deliver, maintaining the trust of your employees during a difficult period is paramount.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

The need to deliver difficult news often comes at times – such as during a downturn or crisis – when employees (and quite possibly you yourself) are already suffering from anxiety and stress. When it comes to ensuring your ability to remain professional and supportive throughout, then, it pays to be prepared.

  1. Write down your key points

Delivering bad news is stressful and in periods of stress we’re far more likely to forget our lines. Without a script, it’s too easy to state incorrect information or make unrealistic commitments, so write down your main points and keep them to hand.

  1. Get the timing right

It may be a truism that there’s no good time for bad news, but timing it badly will only make matters worse, leaving managers with a fire-fighting task that could have been easily avoided.

While it’s understandable to want to put off delivering difficult news, delaying or downplaying announcements is counterproductive. A typical response to difficult news is: ‘How long have you known?’ Long-standing colleagues or employees may even consider such withholding of information as a breach of trust. If news leaks, people may be hurt and angry that they didn’t hear it through the appropriate channels.

Equally tempting is ‘cushioning’ the timing – announcing it last thing on a Friday or during school holidays when many people are on leave – in the misguided belief that this gives recipients time for the news to sink in. (Note to self: the only cushion is from you having to immediately face the impact of a decision that’s already been made.)

  1. Prioritise those most affected

Never discuss or even mention a potential announcement before sharing it completely, clearly and compassionately with those involved. If some employees will be more negatively impacted, tell them about the situation before you tell others. If some customers may suffer because of a policy change, let them know before announcing the change more broadly.

  1. Be ready ­– and able – to answer questions

Your audience will, quite reasonably, want to know what’s happening and, just as importantly, why it’s happening. Consider also the who, when, where, how and what if questions. Include all relevant information. If you don’t have all the details, be honest – and have a plan to get them.

Your announcement will be undermined entirely if you stumble during challenging questioning. A lack of information often creates a lack of confidence and commitment. Do your best to prepare by running – and answering – scenarios through beforehand. 

It’s Not (Just) What You Say, But How You Say It

So how do you go about telling someone that their department is being restructured, or that they are being put on probation, or – as so many are currently experiencing – that they’re being furloughed while maintaining employees’ trust? 

  1. Where possible, deliver in-person

Sure, delivering difficult news face-to-face takes courage – but it also offers you the opportunity to soften the blow and manage the reaction.

If it’s a company-wide announcement, the only effective communication choice may be email, but electing to do so should be a last resort. Email on its own can come across as unfeeling, distant and, frankly, lazy (NB: this is NOT a time to be sending group missives addressed to ‘Dear Colleague’; avoid if at all possible).

If you do have to email, make it personal and always supplement written communication with telephone calls, in-person meetings or video conferences. It will help minimise the impact and show you care about the individual(s) involved.

  1. Don’t conceal – reveal

While the impulse may be well intentioned, don’t try to protect people from bad news. It’s essential to be completely honest and give the message clearly and concisely so individuals know exactly where they stand and what (if any) options are available.

It can be tempting to want to put a positive spin on your message or minimise it with upbeat language. Don’t. Bad news is not more palatable when sugar coated – in fact, sugar-coating can leave a bitter aftertaste.

  1. Apologise and empathise

Saying you’re sorry does not mean you are guilty or liable for a situation. It means you care. So go ahead: tell them you’re sorry the news isn’t better, and do it sincerely (see below).

This applies, too, if the bad news is your fault. Accept responsibility and apologise (and if possible or applicable, how you’re planning to move forward from that) so you and your remaining team can learn and move on.

  1. Watch your tone

We all understand how much power tone of voice has on a personal level, but in a business context, we often forget. In a situation where the content of the message and the tone of voice don’t match, the listener will usually believe tone of voice over content. Think about how you sound when delivering the news.

Tone can be visual as well – not least when video conferencing. One client told me of the HR director who announced the grave news about furloughing staff from his well-appointed lounge beyond which his enormous garden was clearly visible through the open patio doors. Unsurprisingly, his pronouncement that ‘the current lockdown has been difficult for all of us’ was poorly received by the firm’s mainly young and flat-bound workforce.

  1. Take your time

Don’t rush through the announcement. While the desire to do so may be a consequence of your own unease, for the listener it can seem that you don’t care. Likewise, mumbling or using too many ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ can make you seem untrustworthy.

Remember: in highly charged situations, recipients of difficult news tend to process information more slowly or less rationally than they usually might. Taking your time, gives them the space to take in and more fully absorb the message in real time.

  1. Listen actively

Try to maintain eye contact and keep your body language relaxed and open, no matter how difficult it becomes. You don’t want to look defensive. And be prepared for different reactions. Some people may get angry, tearful or sarcastic, others will say very little.

This is where ‘active’ listening is so important. Try not to interrupt or to use expressions like ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘If I was you…’, which won’t help. (You don’t. You’re not them.) It’s important to listen to whatever they have to say and allow them to get it out of their system. Your concern and willingness to listen will be appreciated.

Consider The Broader Picture

Difficult news rarely stands alone. It’s important, then, to include any plans or information informing the decision that’s been made – not to defensively justify, but because it may actually help reduce the impact of your news.

  1. Explain decisions

Where possible, outline any measures being taken to help offset the decisions that have been made. If, for example, a departmental restructure means employees will have to move to another office, will those who can’t move be offered help to find jobs elsewhere?

Similarly, if you can genuinely demonstrate something positive that may happen as a result of your announcement, do so: moving offices may seem like bad news, but it’s not so bad if it saves people’s jobs; changing reporting lines might not be what people want, but if it will place them under a manager better able to support them, it may have a positive outcome.

Be careful how any wider messaging is framed, however: it can be a fine line between this and sugar-coating (as noted above).

  1. Follow up

How you behave during the meeting isn’t the only thing will make a difference. You need to provide additional details and updates in follow-up communications, especially if the news is serious. People take in and process bad news gradually and after they have grasped the essential message, they will want further details.

Broken promises make bad news worse. Follow through on whatever you say – if you say you will provide more information on Friday, do it. If for any reason you’re unable to, explain why in good time. Support those who are affected as much as possible.

  1. Look to the future (when it’s appropriate to do so)

When, eventually, the news becomes more positive, communicate and celebrate it. When employees are recalled to work, when the software is ready for release, when the contract is approved, announce the good news widely and acknowledge the wider team’s role in helping to make that happen. Celebrating the return to good times can help to reignite people’s passion and motivation after a difficult time.

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