In any business, no matter your role, you’ll likely have the unenviable job of breaking bad news to someone — perhaps a boss, a coworker, a board of directors, or a client. Sometimes, the bad news could mean having to spend millions of extra dollars to get a company’s policies up to code, and other times, it can mean a broken client relationship beyond repair.
It’s never an enviable task to have to tell someone news you know they don’t want to hear and will make their lives markedly more difficult in the future. From breakups to letting someone go from their job and everything in between, breaking bad news is uncomfortable and tough. Here’s some suggestions for how not to make it worse than it has to be.
Get on their emotional level. Even before you arrive to deliver the tough news, make sure that you’re in touch with where the audience is and will be emotionally. If you can put yourself in their shoes, you can strategize the best timing and wording of the delivery. If you anticipate rage, ensure your demeanor is calm and confident, but empathetic. If the reaction will be emotional, come armed with tissues, and a soft understanding tone.
Tell it like it is. Don’t “round up” or avoid revealing crucial facts in order to spare people’s feelings. The purpose of a bad news brief is to get all the information out there, so once you start, there’s no good reason not to get it all in the open. There’s no need to be callous, but breathe deep and tell the truth as matter of factly as you can. At the very least, your listeners will appreciate the openness and candor.
Have all the facts ready. Again, put yourself in the shoes of the audience and anticipate what kind of questions or concerns they’re going to express upon receiving this terrible news. Within reason, prepare answers to all the obvious questions related to consequences, context, and next steps.
Be fully available to remedy the situation. You can’t just drop bad news and roll out — that’s how you make enemies and earn a reputation as a chaos-wreaker. After you fully administer the bitter medicine, stick around to help people process their feelings and talk through next steps. If possible come in with an action plan to mitigate the negative situation and have any potential data, parameters, and other relevant information handy. Stay in frequent touch via email and update them if information changes in a timely fashion.