How to Deliver Bad News

There are times when you have to deliver bad news. It’s rarely easy, but there are ways to make it less stressful and ensure that everyone’s views are heard.

Being on the receiving end of bad news isn’t easy, but there are also times when you might have to deliver information that’s difficult for others to hear. Perhaps it’s part of your job – for example, you might have the task of giving feedback about a project that’s not gone well or having to tell staff they’re facing redundancy following an announcement about jobs cuts.  No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but these conversations can’t always be avoided. You might, for instance, find yourself in a position where you have to let down a friend over travel arrangements or tell an eldery parent that a new job means you’ll be moving further away from them. If you find yourself in this position, how might you handle it best?

Is This The Right Thing To Do?

Preparation is crucial when you’re leading up to having a discussion of this dort, but there’s possibly even a step before that.  When having a challenging conversation, I start by asking myself first of all if I’m right to be having this conversation. Am I basing it on facts and observations or on assumptions? If it’s the latter, I either need to get the facts and consider if it’s the right thing to do or work out if there’s another way. For example: if I’m considering giving personal feedback, might an alternative be to improve the relationship? This is the step before the decision to act, to make sure you’re doing the right thing by having the conversation.

It’s easy to believe your own opinion is right and to act accordingly, so this initial step of standing back and asking pertinent questions is useful because it means you’re scrutinizing your internal beliefs. Seeing things from a different perspective could even present an alternative approach to a situation. It’s also important to consider your own state of mind before negotiating tricky conversations. Are you in the right frame of mind to have a constructive discussion? If either or both of you are feeling heated or nervous, it might not be the best time. When you’re emotional, things are filtered via the recreational brain rather than the thinking one, so you react rather than analyze. If it needs to be said, don’t leave it too long, but prepare what you want to say and how you’re going to say it.

Be Prepared

There are times when there’s no other way and a difficult discussion has to take place. If that’s the case, preparation, empathy and a desire to give the message with positive regard for the individual receiving it are vital.

Everything is created at least twice. Once in your head and then again when you actually say it. Take an empathetic approach even before a meeting or a call. Think about how your words are going to land. Try to see it from the other individual’s situation. Consider how you’d want this news delivered to you.

Balancing Act

For some, achieving that balance can be tough. People can respond to bad news in a myriad of ways and no matter how prepared you are, they can still surprise you. There’s even the chance that the message could get lost among your own emotions. How might you calm and deliver the message in an appropriate and professional way? Often in these situations, less is more. Try to be empathetic and not overly sympathetic or emotional . Avoid saying this like how terrible this is or “it’s not my fault”. Being gushy is likely to come across as patronizing. If you have to deliver this news as part of your role, take ownership of it. Retain a polite and respectful position. Allow space for the person to take it all in. You don’t have to jump in to fill the gaps. Be prepared that the person might not like you right now.

Also, get to the point and don’t drag it out. Lay down some boundaries if possible. You can set the right tone for the conversation and seek permission,this can be helpful. You might say something like. “I need you to hear me out for a minute if that’s okay. After that you can say what you want, how you want to say it, but hear me out just for a minute.” Don’t sugar-coat the message even if the person gets upset or angry. Give them space, check that they’re okay, pass a tissue or get some water, but hold your own position. Don’t unravel what you’ve just done.

What’s Next

There are times when you can’t make things better for someone else. Only they can come to terms with the information shared and its impact. Ensure that you’re aware of whether any additional support is available and advise on how and where it can be located.

If you believe there’s a possibility to move forward, it might be time to share constructive feedback on what might have led to a different outcome. For example, if an individual didn’t get a job they interviewed for, review comments and notes and provide constructive advice on what they might do in the future to improve their changes or recommend a particular course that might enhance their qualifications or experience.

When giving feedback, help the other person understand why. Give them something they can use productively. If they’ve failed at an audition or a driving test, what could they have done differently or what’s something they might do next time? Pull out a positive if you can. Sometimes I like to say what went well and it would have been even better if…and ten I add in the things that someone might focus on for the future. If it’s difficult feedback you’re delivering, try to get to the bottom of why. Asks lots of open questions, explore the situation and if you reach a position where the feedback has been accepted, move into problem-solving mode. Remember, the symptoms could be the result of something much deeper going on. Consider actions and ways forward once the news is delivered. Enable the person to take ownership of their actions and if there is any follow-up to be carried out, make sure you do it.

It’s natural to feel drained, emotional or upset after a difficult conversation, so remember to look after yourself too. You might feel the need to talk to someone after the event. Seek peer support from others who might have to give similar news. Find a safe haven. It’s good to let off steam.

If you’ve had a tough discussion with a family member or friend, go for a walk or go to lunch. Try to get in a mindful state of being rather than doing. Consider talking to someone you trust. These things never become easy and in some ways that’s a good thing as it means these are important discussions and ones that still require preparation every time. If you’re feeling drained, it’s an indication of your care for the individual involved.

Delivering bad news is tough, but planning, empathy and awareness can help to ensure dignity is preserved.

Reading Reactions

One aspect of having a difficult conversation or giving bad news is that you can’t be entirely sure how the other person will react. Think about how you’ve reacted in different situations – upset, angry, confused, secretly relieved? Giving some consideration to possible responses will help you feel more prepared and better able to see other perspectives. Below are six possible reactions which are important to recognize and understand so you can work out how to respond.

  • The person agrees, apologizes and accepts it 
  • The person disagrees, partly or wholly
  • The person defends themselves and their actions 
  • The person deflects or deferes it to someone else
  • The person pretends it’s not happening
  • The person displays emotion, which could be tears, upset  or anger

Whatever a person’s reaction, you don’t need to agree with them, but you can still empathize. Try not to make assumptions. Ask what they need, and remember, it’s about them, not you.

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