20 Tips for Communicating Bad News

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20 Tips for Communicating Bad News

By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston
Founder, Syntax Training

Delivering bad news is a huge communication challenge. It requires great care, especially if the news is upsetting rather than merely inconvenient. Before you communicate bad news, whether it is about the loss of jobs, a change in schedules or benefits, a delay, or a denial, consider these 20 suggestions.

1. Use a variety of media, not just email.
Often the most effective communication choice is email combined with other methods, but email alone comes across as unfeeling and distant. Supplement written communication with telephone calls, in-person meetings, live online meetings, videoconferences, and other choices. Consider communicating through letters to clients’ offices or employees’ homes, memos, the intranet, and blog posts.

2. Communicate more than once.
Provide additional details and updates in follow-up communications. Especially if the news is serious, people take in bad news only gradually. After they have grasped the essential message, they will want details.

3. Reveal it—don’t conceal it.
Don’t try to protect others from bad news or yourself from sharing it. If bad news leaks out, people may be hurt and angry that they did not hear it from you or through other appropriate channels.

4. Communicate bad news promptly.
A typical response to bad news is “How long have you known?” If you have known for a long time but have not shared the news, people may feel that they have been cheated or that you do not trust them. Recognize that there is no good time for bad news—share it as soon as you can share it clearly and completely.

5. Use professional language.
Only use informal language or slang if your specific audience will relate better to it. Think carefully before using emoticons such as frowning faces or expressions like “It sucks.” Be serious when delivering bad news, or your audience will be confused about the seriousness of the message.

6. Include the good-news aspects of the bad news.
If you can legitimately share positive news, do so, but see Tip 7 below. For example, downsizing offices may seem like bad news, but it is good news if it saves people’s jobs. Delaying a software release is bad news, but it is also good news if it means that the new software will be significantly more reliable.

7. Do not sugarcoat, minimize, or disguise the message.
Avoid minimizing the message with cheerful, positive language. Bad news is not more palatable with a sweet coating.

8. Don’t rely only on trickle-down communication.
Bad news needs to be communicated consistently and quickly. Although for most news, the ideal communicators are supervisors, managers, and people in similar roles, it is best to communicate bad news to everyone at once. A live meeting (in person or virtually) with the CEO is one way to manage the challenge.

9. Apologize.
Saying you are sorry about a situation does not mean you are guilty or liable for it. It means you care. Tell employees, customers, clients, and patrons when you are sorry that the news is not better. And if the bad news is your fault—for example, if you missed a proposal submission deadline because of your own mistake or delay—accept responsibility and apologize so that you and everyone else can move on.

10. Communicate first with the people who are most affected by the bad news.
Never blog or Tweet about bad news before sharing it completely, clearly, and compassionately with those involved. If some employees will be transferred, tell them directly before you tell others about the situation. If some customers may suffer because of a policy change, tell them about it before announcing the change broadly.

11. Answer essential questions.
Your audience will likely want to learn what, why, who, when, where, how, how much, and what if. Include all the information that is important to them. If you don’t have all the details, be honest but have a plan to get the information. A lack of information often creates a lack of confidence and commitment.

12. Individualize the message.
Employees have different questions from managers. Your clients need different information from your coworkers. Invest the time to write the right message for each audience, and it will pay off in more successful communication.

13. Don’t communicate on people’s personal time.
If bad news is serious, it may be prudent to contact people at home. But most bad news should be communicated at work on work time to avoid increasing people’s irritation and resentment.

14. Recognize bad news.
Anytime information is not welcome to your audience, it is bad news, even if it seems positive or neutral to you. For example, being enrolled in a training program is bad news to an employee who doesn’t see its value or is too busy to attend. Changing health plans is bad news to an employee who likes the current plan, even if the new plan is better. Tips 6 and 11 above help with this special type of bad news.

15. Use accurate titles or subject lines for bad-news communications.
If a title seems misleading, readers will be skeptical about your entire message. Avoid titles like “An Exciting Change in Benefits” if the change is unwelcome to any of your readers. Instead use the neutral “Change in Benefits Effective January 1, 20XX.”

16. Avoid blaming other individuals.
It may be tempting to blame others for the bad news you must share, but blaming individuals or groups can be seen as unseemly and cowardly. However, vague blame—for example, blaming the economy, government regulations, or the H1N1 virus—is acceptable and understandable to your audience—if it is truthful.

17. Mention anything you are doing to reduce the impact of the bad news.
For example, if the parking lot will be closed for two weeks for repaving and painting, describe the plans you have made to shuttle employees to work, offer bus passes, and increase telecommuting. If a delay means you cannot ship an order in time for holiday delivery, state what you can ship as a replacement, what type of gift card you can provide until the product is available, etc.

18. Write down your bad-news messages even when you will speak them.
Without a script, it is too easy to state incorrect information and make unrealistic commitments. If you will speak at a meeting, be prepared with written answers to questions people are likely to ask.

19. Keep your promises to communicate.
Broken promises make bad news worse. If you say you will provide more information on Monday, do it. If the information is not available, say so.

20. Empathize.
Be compassionate with yourself and others. When you deliver bad news, both you and the recipient will probably feel bad. Don’t be surprised or offended if the other person or audience strikes back with sarcasm or criticism. Do your best to be professional, and know that the bad feelings will pass.

When the news turns positive, communicate and celebrate it. When laid off employees are recalled to work, when the software is ready for release, when 90 percent of employees rate the new plan “Very good or excellent,” when the contract is approved, announce the good news widely. Celebrate the return to good times!

For additional valuable tips on communicating in challenging situations, get the award-winning book Business Writing With Heart.

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