How to convey bad news, gracefully
Recently, the sales director of an audio company had to fire a dealer since the monthly targets weren’t being met. He asked the area manager to give the news to the dealer. The area manager tried get in touch with them over the phone to fix an appointment. When that did not work, he just shot them an email telling them they were no longer the partners of the company. And, as expected, all hell broke loose. The dealer called up the director to clarify and the situation took some effort to clean up!
We all come across situations where we need to convey bad news to others. It could be to family, a colleague or an external customer. And no one likes to be the person who brings bad news to people. Are there ways to make it a pleasant task? Not really! But there are ways you can mitigate the effect and handle the situation confidently. Here are a few tips:
Hold on to your self-esteem: Don’t feel guilty while giving someone bad news. Feeling guilty will only make it seem like you are wrong - which you are not. Convey confidence and a positive tone in your voice and body language. This will greatly alleviate the negative sentiments and inject positivity in your conversation. The trust this generates is crucial for a conversation like this.
Always do it in person: As was evident in the example at the beginning, things could have been handled a lot better if the news was conveyed in person. Writing an email in this situation is very impersonal. Unless impossible to do so, it is always a good idea to tell someone something unpleasant in person. This shows that you care and are there to genuinely support the receiver. Your empathetic body language can be of added assistance in breaking the unpleasant news.
Do it on time: Since being the bearer of bad news isn’t exactly something we look forward to, we may want to wait to have ‘the talk’. But this isn’t quite a great idea, especially when things aren’t going well. Bad news is better conveyed on time before things snowball into a crisis or lead to a misunderstanding. Coming from the wrong source at the wrong time, can make it worse and harder to handle it well.
Keep it to the point, without being blunt: Build a bit of context which led to the current situation, instead of jumping straight to the point. This will help the receiver see why it was inevitable for you to avoid this talk. While giving them reasons is a good idea, don’t encourage a debate or discussion around the news you are conveying to the other party. This might only lead to a battle of defending and finger-pointing, thereby further aggravating the situation.
Don’t blame it on the receiver: One of the worst things to do is to inflict the “I told you so” on the receiver of bad news. We might find it easy to just blame it on the other person and to justify that they are at fault and responsible for the situation. But this only shows your poor self-esteem and can harm the relationship beyond repair.
Have a plan: Instead of making the unpleasant news a dead end, you may want to think of alternatives. Or look at ways in which the receiver actually benefits by turning the bad turn of events into new and better opportunities. In the earlier example, it helped to explain to the dealer the other opportunities they could explore by giving up one brand of products. There can also be possibilities of a new partnership with new terms. Similarly, if it is a team member being shifted to a new team, you can ensure that you introduce the new team and make the transition smooth. If it is an external customer/vendor who you have to let go, you can always have a list of people who can help the afflicted person/party.
By Suman Kher
The author is a certified trainer and coach. She has 13 years of experience in soft skills and communication training.