Bringing Bad News

Sometimes you will need to tell someone something unpleasant. The characteristic of bad news is that the information you are bringing leaves the other with no option other than to accept it. When you tell an employee the firm he or she works for has gone bankrupt, for example, he or she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. This is clearly something different than resistance or an advice the other doesn’t like: In such cases, they usually still have a choice, one of which is doing nothing. In brief, bad news is something the other will need (to learn) to live with.

Structure of a bad news conversation

The following steps are taken during such a conversation:

  • Introduction
  • Delivering the bad news
  • Helping to deal with the initial shock
  • Assisting in finding ways to deal with it
  • Agreements
  • Closing off the conversation

Decent preparation is no waste of effort: Make sure you are clear on what the bad news is, how to word it, what arguments may need to be given and when you will deliver the bad news. If you or the organisation you work for have options which may help the receiver of bad news, be sure you know exactly what those options entail. The preparation needn’t take long, but be sure to plan in more than sufficient time for the actual conversation. It is better not to postpone the bad news, as that doesn’t do anyone any good. Neither you, as you may be dreading the conversation, nor the other, who after all has the right to know as soon as possible when something important concerns him or her.

Introduction

Bringing bad news is done one-on-one, so you will need to invite the other for a personal conversation. The tone should be neutral and the invitation as short and direct as possible – for example: ‘Joe, I need to speak with you. Do you have a moment?’ Often, the other already knows something unpleasant is awaiting him or her. All the more reason to let the conversation take place as soon as possible after the invitation. If at all avoidable, it is better not to invite or hold the actual conversation on the last day of the week, or just before going on holiday. Not only because it will spoil someone’s weekend or holiday, but because most people have more opportunity to find social support on an ordinary weekday. If it cannot be avoided then you shouldn’t postpone it; just remember to help the other find other sources of support.

Delivering the bad news

After the introduction, without beating around the bush, come straight to the point and deliver the message: ‘I have bad news for you. We will not be extending your employment contract at the end of this month’. If there are important arguments or reasons for this decision, only the most important (one, at most two) are added, again delivered in brief, succinct wording: ‘As you are aware, our firm isn’t bringing in enough new work’.

Suppress the tendency to soften the blow, package the message or beat around the bush. This is counterproductive, as it serves only to increase the other’s tension, whereby the blow only lands more heavily. Usually, these strategies are used to reduce your own bad feeling about the message you have to deliver, but aren’t in the other’s best interests. So it is better to deliver the bad news directly and in a business-like tone.

Helping to deal with the initial shock

As soon as the message has been delivered, it is time to close your mouth and give the receiver plenty of time to react. Someone who has just received bad news will first need to deal with the initial shock and the bad feeling that gives them, or at least be able to vent their emotions. You should not engage in a discussion with the other, but use paraphrases, literal reflections and reflections of emotion to let him or her feel that you recognise his or her disappointment, frustration, or whatever other emotions he or she is experiencing. It is important to stick to their own experience. It certainly doesn’t help to identify a common enemy with statements such as ‘I would like to have seen it differently’ or ‘management requires it’, or phrase it any other way in which you (implicitly) implicate another party. This will only fuel the negative emotion rather than help the receiver.

If the other does try to engage you in a discussion, merely repeat the message. As it is, he or she will be less receptive to rational arguments, so to go on the defensive by giving rational arguments is likely to escalate emotions. If the client asks for extra information and you have some, you may give this information. But provide it in the same tone and fashion as the original bad news: Short, direct and in a business-like tone. It is still far too early to start making suggestions or giving advice. Continue to give the receiver plenty of time for the bad news to land and for him or her to process the initial shock.

You also needn’t take the other’s reaction personally. Especially when they interpret the bad news as a personal failure on their part, then their response is most likely a way to deal with the bad feeling the news gives them. So, don’t get yourself drawn into the discussion; maintain a neutral tone, and let them notice that you recognise their emotion.

Help the other to find ways to deal with the bad news

It is only after there has been sufficient opportunity to process the emotions of the initial shock that the next subject can be dealt with: How to continue. So, when you see your conversational partner’s agitation (or the opposite, that they have been totally winded) subside, and that their voice has returned to its normal volume and pitch, then the time is right to take this next step. Sometimes, depending on how hard the news has been received, the emotions will be so intense that it is better to plan a follow-up conversation (which will also need to be soon after the current conversation). Make it clear that this follow-up will be to discuss how to proceed, and don’t let the receiver leave until the worst of the emotions has subsided. Herein lies the main reason to plan more than enough time for a bad news conversation.

When broaching the subject of how to proceed, it is also better if receivers themselves propose what steps they will take. If they have difficulty with this, you may make some suggestions, using the general rule not to give advice or make suggestions unless specifically asked. Note, though, ‘What must I do?’ isn’t necessarily an explicit request for advice. More often than not it is the venting of a feeling of helplessness or despair. In other words, you will need to be sensitive enough to discern between the venting of an emotion and a genuine request for assistance. And even when they do request help, try asking if they have any ideas of their own first.

If you do have an offer of assistance (from yourself or from the organisation that you work for) it is best if this is given last. And, before actually making the offer, again ask yourself if you are actually helping the other with this offer. Generally, if the offer is to soften your own negative feeling, it isn’t really in the other’s best interests. That is also why it is best to leave this for last: So you can double-check that it will serve the other’s best interests.

Agreements and closing the conversation

When ready to do so, agreements can be made; the more concrete, the better. Who is going to do what, when and with whom? Who else needs to be informed, and who is going to do that? And so forth. A good strategy is to end this phase with a short summary of what was agreed, and then to round off the conversation quite quickly.

How not to do it

There are some cowardly ways to deliver bad news that should be avoided. If your partner were to dump you with an SMS, WhatsApp or voicemail message, how would you feel? Most people would feel themselves disrespected. This is therefore not a good way of delivering bad news either, and you should stick to the personal approach. The same goes for a written delivery – it is okay to send a written confirmation after the conversation, but not instead of first personally delivering the message. If it isn’t possible to meet in person, a telephone (or webcam) conversation is a good compromise, but the best is still face-to-face, one-on-one.

Another cowardly way is to use a ‘by-the-way’ message interposed between other day-to-day activities, especially whilst in the company of others: ‘Oh yes, before I forget: Your contract ends at the end of the month’. Both this and the previous method rob the other of their opportunity to freely express their emotion, leaving them to deal with the shock on their own.

A final cowardly way is called ‘hang yourself’, which boils down to bringing the bad news in such a way that you don’t have to deliver the message: You lead the other bit by bit to discover the bad news for himself or herself. It’s cowardly and disrespectful, so simply don’t do it that way.

In summary, it’s never nice to have to bring bad news: Neither for the bringer, nor for the receiver. Yet, when it has to be done, it is better not to postpone, nor try to soften the blow, nor to package the message, but to clearly, succinctly and directly tell the person involved what is going on. This is what is best for them. After delivering the bad news, the other is given plenty of time to first vent his or her emotion and then deal with the initial shock the bad news gives him or her. Only then can a discussion take place about how to proceed, and concrete agreements can be made.

Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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