August 29, 2012

Five tips to deliver bad news gracefully.

Raising your prices?  Cutting services?  Not giving out staff bonuses this year?  Putting an employee on probation?

No one wants to deliver this kind of unwelcome news.  Quite frankly…it sucks, for both the recipient AND the messenger.  But sometimes it’s a necessary evil of doing business, and you’re the unfortunate soul who has to bear the burden.  Here are five tips to mitigate the drama:

1 – Let your own emotions run their course before you have to share the news with others.  You may not like or agree with the news you must deliver, but there is a reason why it must be done.  Find a way to come to terms with it in your own mind so you don’t bring your own negative emotional energy to the communication.  Your audience will take its cue from your approach, and if you’re defensive, nervous, weepy, or angry…it will only fuel their own negative response.

2 – Restrict your build-up and get to the point.  By the time people get through six long paragraphs of posturing and pussyfooting, their BS-radar is on high alert and involuntary butterflies in their stomach are flooding their brain with negative emotion.  So, when you finally hit them with the unpleasant punchline in that last paragraph, their adverse reaction is intensified by the emotions you yourself have nurtured in them.  The same thing holds true for verbal delivery.  Often times, the anticipation is worse than the actual news.

3 – Consider the timing carefully.  Procrastinating often makes it worse (especially if there is a rumor mill in the mix), but rushing to break the news just because YOU want to put it behind you comes with great risk.   A knee-jerk communication is usually delivered with clouded judgment, high emotion, and a lack of due diligence.  Most importantly, think about when this news will best be received.  Bad news is never welcome, but you should consider factors like time of day, day of week, and your audience’s state of mind before you decide on the ideal timing.

4 – Avoid misdirection and trickery.  It’s tempting to load up bad news communication with a bunch of good news in the hopes of distracting your audience.  However, it will only damage their trust in you.  You may choose this path because it makes YOU feel better (“Look, see?  I’m not that bad…look at all the good things I’m still sharing!”) but to the news recipient, it just looks wishy-washy and weak.  And, in many cases, it can give the appearance of trivializing very serious news and not treating it with the respect it deserves.

5 – Remember that nothing is confidential.  Emails can be forwarded, and social media is designed to be the world’s fastest grapevine.  Whatever you do…whatever you say…before you “go there,” answer this question:  how would I feel if 50 million people knew about this tomorrow?  Nothing tames you into acting gracefully like the thought of being vilified by an outraged public.  United Airlines learned this lesson the hard way.  Watch video.

Above all, you must remember this:  no matter how you spin it or when you say it…your audience won’t like it.  That’s why it’s called “bad news.”  It would be completely irrational for you to tell your customers you’re raising prices and have them respond “Right, then…no worries, we don’t mind.”  So, be realistic with yourself.  If you expect to deliver bad news and have people walking away happy…this will not work out well for you.

And that brings us to the last point:  delivering bad news is not about YOU.  The recipient does not want to hear about how you were up all night belly-aching over having this conversation, or that you’re just so upset you can’t eat, or that it gives you no pleasure to do this.  Asking for their empathy at a time like this is most likely to result in their wanting to smack you.  Let them have their moment of sadness without trying to steal some sympathy for yourself.

Note:  Already delivered the bad news and made a mess of things?  Check out the earlier post on our blog:  Eight Ways to Apologize Without Saying “I’m Sorry.”

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