How to deliver bad news

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12 September 2019
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

How to deliver bad news

In life and in business, at some point you will have to deliver bad news to someone. Perhaps you’re announcing lay-offs, you’ve lost a major client, or the office has to move. Sometimes the news comes as a surprise to the person you’re speaking to, which might heighten their emotions and initial reaction, and sometimes they may have been expecting it, which could mean they’ve had time to ruminate on the news before having anyone to discuss it with. Whatever the situation is, you need to know how to deliver the news and handle people’s reactions to it.


Take the initiative

Rumours and gossip spread quickly, and once it starts there’s no way to stop it. So, you should always try to be ahead of this and to make sure you tell people the news before they hear it from another source. This lets you stay in control of the information that people hear, and how they hear it. Because once one person overhears something they weren’t meant to, and tells another friend, who tells another friend, the information has inevitably changed from the original news.

Prepare exactly what and how you want to say it. How you inform people of the news can shape their perceptions of it, so it’s important to make sure you say it right.


Get to the point

When you have something to say, just say it. It might be tempting to start explaining all the reasons that led to this decision, or how recent events outside of your control created this situation, but that isn’t how you should start your conversation. There will be a time for these extra comments, but for now, if you have some bad news to tell someone then you should just say it. Bad news is never easy to hear, but people will respect you for being straight forward with them.


Keep it neutral

After you give them the bad news, it can be tempting to offer your sympathy, but this isn’t the time. They won’t be interested in hearing about how you feel, especially if you’re not personally affected by it, or if you’re seen as the cause.

However, you can demonstrate empathy. Even if you’re not directly affected by the news, you can talk a little bit about how you felt when you heard the news or became aware of the situation. This gives you a chance to show that you’re not happy about what has happened, but you should try to keep the tone and content of what you say neutral. You still have to be the bearer of bad news, and your own emotional response isn’t going to help.


Clarify the next steps

If at all possible, offer them a pre-planned set of next steps or solutions they can choose from. For example, if staff need to relocate to another part of the country, you might want to say if there will be help for those moving, and for those who don't want to move, you will offer them good references and help finding a new job.

This shows that you’re trying to help make the situation the best it can be, and means they now need to focus on their future and not the current situation. This may also help to deflect some of the strongest emotions, and help you feel more confident delivering the news, as you’ve already shown a light at the end of the tunnel.


Give them time to take it in

People often need time to process and adjust to bad news, needing to fully consider the ramifications and how it affects them. If you need to announce the news to a large group at once, offer to speak to each person individually – if possible – in order to discuss their own specific concerns and implications.

You need to make sure that people understand the mechanisms that are in place for them to stay informed of any new developments. Are you going to email out regular updates or are you going to filter down news through managers? If the news is bad enough that people are upset or worried by it, then it’s important that you consider their emotions as things go forward. You may not be able to change the situation, but you can affect how you and others react to it. Announcing a major piece of news but then having no follow up is a good way to spread even more panic than it needs.

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