The bringer of bad news: Tips for softening the blow

Alan Palmer
Only provide explanations once you've announced what the bad news is (Source: Getty)

Oh dear, the IT system has gone into meltdown, there’s no budget for a bonus, the star account director has resigned, the investment has tanked and we’ve missed the deadline.

The merde has hit the fan and all that remains to be done is to deliver the news to the client or colleague. Hmm, perhaps it would be better if I did it tomorrow, or maybe Monday?

In such situations, we all instinctively know that sooner is better, and that putting off the announcement will increase both the duration of our stress and the potential damage to the relationship. But the dread with which we anticipate the conversation makes us easy prey to the temptation to prevaricate.

Here are some ideas for announcing the news which will simultaneously reduce your discomfort and increase your effectiveness.

Speed is of the essence

Not only does the conversation need to happen fast, but within the conversation, the difficult news itself needs to be delivered at the earliest possible point.

If the other person suspects something’s amiss, they’ll thank you for saying so quickly and not keeping them waiting for confirmation. If they don’t have any inkling of disaster, they will resent you if they find out later in the conversation rather than sooner.

Give yourself a level of comfort by stating openly at the outset how you feel about having the conversation.

Have a goal in mind

Crucially, think about what your goal for the conversation is.

Remember, the announcement itself is just an announcement, it’s not an outcome. And above all, it’s not negotiable. So think about what is negotiable. What do you want to happen after you’ve broken the news? What do you want the other person to do? How are you hoping they’ll react? What’s the solution or next step you want to agree?

Only provide explanations and details once you’ve announced the news and once you’ve been clear about what you want to achieve when you’ve given those explanations and details.

Different scenarios

Here are a couple of examples for how to open a “difficult news” conversation which respect these principles:

The portfolio has tanked

"John, this is not the kind of call I like to make to a client because I’ll admit to being concerned about your reaction. I have to tell you that, as of this morning, your portfolio is down 20 per cent over the week. I’m ready to explain what’s happened in the market to cause this, and why I feel safe in sticking to our original strategy."

"Once we’ve been through all that, I hope that you’ll tell me you’re happy to ride things out with me. Now that I’ve said that, what do you want to know and how do you feel about sticking to our guns?"

The star account director has an offer elsewhere and wants off the unsexy retail account

"Jane, given what I have to say to you this morning, I’ve had to pluck up my courage to do so. For reasons which I’ll elaborate on in detail, we’re going to have to start transitioning Simon off your account."

"So today I want to introduce you to the new account director I’m recommending to replace him. And once you’ve met her, I hope you’ll endorse my choice and define with me how we can organise things to make the transition as smooth as possible. How does that sound to you?"

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