How to Give Bad News Without Crushing your Colleague

Nobody likes to give bad news. It’s uncomfortable. It brings up feelings of guilt. You become concerned about hurting or offending the other person. You don’t want to damage your reputation or look like “the bad person”.

In life, and especially in business, bad news is inevitable. At some stage you’re going to have to deliver criticism, turn down an offer, or fire somebody. The likelihood of you having to do these things increases as you become more senior and in charge of more people.

Compared to your personal life though, in a business context, bad news is more difficult to give. There are more barriers between you and the other person. There are more expectations and reputations that need to be upheld.

You cannot get angry. You cannot be overly emotional. You will be worried about damaging your relationship with that person and gossip spreading around the office. You may even wonder whether one day that person will become your boss and will give you payback for the bad news you delivered to them.

The truth is, there is really no easy way to deliver bad news. It’s difficult. And except for the sadistic types, it’s a situation that most people would rather avoid.

However since it is something you’re likely to have to do at some stage, let’s talk about techniques that can make it easier on you and the other person. As a leadership and communication coach, this is what I share with my clients.

8 future learning learning and development trends for 2019

1. Prepare what you’re going to say

Whenever you’re approaching a conversation that’s going to be difficult, you’ll naturally get anxious. When you’re anxious, your thoughts get muddled and what comes out your mouth is rarely what you intend.

Preparing what you’re going to say in advance is the only way to get around this. Preparation will make you confident. Confidence will make the message you need to deliver less difficult.

Write down on a piece of paper exactly the words you’re going to use. Practice these words so they become easier for you to say. See the below examples in number three for what you should say.

2. Have a private conversation

There’s no need for others to overhear the bad news you’re delivering. If you know you have an audience, you’ll get more nervous. In addition, the other person will become more self-conscious and embarrassed.

This is a conversation that needs to be done in private. Choose a meeting room or private office. Close the door. Turn off your mobile phone. Deliver your message.

3. Tell them straight

This isn’t the place for vague wishy-washy language. You might feel that by being indirect you’re making it easier on them, but really, all you’re doing is making it more drawn out and difficult for them to understand what your message is. Don’t make them guess. Be direct, straight, and honest.

Here are some examples:

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but we’re going to use another contractor”.
“The reason I invited you in here today is to tell you that you’re being fired”.
“There’s no easy way to tell you this, but you’re not getting the promotion”.

Don’t say, “This is really difficult for me to say….”. It’s not about you. It’s about them. They don’t care if it’s difficult for you to say. All they care about is the bad news you’re giving them. Don’t make it about you, keep your focus and concern on them.

Once you’ve delivered your main message, continue with the reason you’ve made this decision. The other person will naturally want to know “why” this bad news is being delivered to them. Don’t leave them in the dark.

4. Ask them how they feel about the news

This is a coaching technique that is useful for managers to use in delicate conversations.
Instead of dishing out the bad news and walking away, you need to spend time with the other person talking through how they’re feeling about it. This will show that you’re a concerned leader and not a heartless boss.

Ask, “How are you feeling about this news?” and stop talking. Open the space for the other person to respond.

Make sure you watch their body language and facial expressions as they answer. You’ll draw a lot more information from these nonverbal cues.

5. Offer to help

Once you’ve delivered the bad news and discussed how the other person is feeling about it, you should offer your help. Perhaps you can connect them with somebody for their next job. Maybe you can offer training or coaching to help them with an area they’re finding difficult.

Ask, “How can I help you with [the situation]?”.

At the end of the day, delivering bad news will be uncomfortable. But with the above techniques, I hope you can make it a little less uncomfortable for you and the other person.

Mentorship and Coaching, learning and development trends

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About Kara

Kara Ronin is the founder of Executive Impressions. She is an executive coach who specialises in leadership presence, social skills and business etiquette. She is also the creator of Bestselling Udemy course, Business Etiquette 101. Kara’s advice and unique perspectives have been featured in Time Inc., Business Insider, Ignites Europe (a Financial Times Service), The Muse, The Local France, The West Australian, and more. Kara works regularly with lawyers, investment bankers, and finance professionals to help them build presence, authority and influence in business. Get Kara's insights delivered straight to your inbox