This Is How You Deliver Bad News

This Is How
Bad News

A few years ago, my husband and I had to deliver some difficult news to our daughter. Her favorite baseball player (“in the universe, Mom”) Todd Frazier was traded from her favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds, to the Chicago White Sox.

This may seem fairly trivial to most; it happens all the time in baseball. But this particular little girl could recite the batting order of the Reds from memory, knew a litany of facts about her favorite third baseman, and carried around a Todd Frazier doll. So in her world, this news was pretty devastating.

We were dreading the conversation. But, being an experienced project manager, this was not the first time I’ve had to communicate bad news. To help us prepare, my husband and I reviewed a few key concepts I’ve learned over the years. I’m sharing those today to help you navigate future conversations that are difficult or tricky.

Follow talking points, not a script.

Preparing for a difficult conversation is good, but you won’t need to memorize a script or stick to a strict plan. No matter how often we practice it, conversations rarely go exactly as we think they will. As long as you have a clear understanding of what you want to communicate, you should be able to have a meaningful conversation.

Provide context.

From the perspective of the bad news-giver, you might feel tempted to rip the band-aid off and be done with it. But being so direct about the message can feel like an attack for the bad news-receiver. After all, they haven’t any time to prepare themselves for the message (unlike you). By providing the necessary context for the situation, you allow your audience to brace themselves figuratively and literally for the message.

Be direct.

With that said, when it comes time to deliver the bad news, be as clear and direct about it as possible. Whether you’re telling someone “Todd Frazier has been traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Chicago White Sox” or “We’ve decided to terminate your contract,” using unambiguous language helps your audience accept the news.

Consider the medium of delivery.

If the news impacts many people, consider whether you want to deliver it to a large group (so they can hear the message at the same time) or in a smaller, more intimate setting (so they feel more comfortable asking questions). While delivering bad news via email is often the least ideal option, sometimes it’s necessary—especially if your team is entirely virtual. If you have to share bad news over email, a good rule of thumb is to use tact and restraint to ease the person into reading the message.

Have compassion.

One of the most compassionate things we can do when sharing bad news is allowing our audience to have some time to process the message. By stopping and giving them space to react, we can help them accept the news. Understand the other person’s perspective, and recognize that this news might have a bigger impact on them than you. Be respectful and take time to listen and answer questions the other party might have.

In the end, my daughter did shed some tears. After all, this was her favorite player in the universe. But thanks to these key concepts, our conversation went much more smoothly than had I not prepared. No matter who your audience is, if you’re delivering bad news, I can vouch that these tips really do help make for a better conversation!

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