Need to Deliver Bad News? Preparation is the Key


We all dread those difficult conversations – the ones that keep us up at night. There are as many difficult conversations as there are people and situations. These conversations include delivering bad news, admitting to an error, resolving conflicts and misunderstandings, employee separations, addressing inappropriate behavior, and other situations that you might never anticipate. Our success as managers and as leaders significantly depends on our ability to navigate these sensitive and often emotional topics. But you can successfully navigate these minefields if you approach the problem in a structured, disciplined way.

So what does that mean? It means that following a process for these conversations will help you deliver the message you need to deliver, in a professional and respectful manner, while avoiding escalating issues. Here are some tips to managing these tricky communications. By following these tips, you will find that while it won’t make these conversations any more pleasant, you will be more successful in resolving them.

Prepare for the conversation. Make sure that you clearly understand and can articulate the goal of the conversation. What information do you need to convey? What outcome do you want to advance? What behavioral change do you need to induce? Once you understand the goal of the conversation, prepare a clear and concise message. Do not over elaborate, or allow off-topic issues to get in the way of the message. When preparing the message, work from facts, not feelings or rumors. Make sure you have all relevant facts documented in writing, and be prepared to go over the facts with the other parties in the conversation. Use very specific language. Say “you were more than 15 minutes late on the following dates” rather than “I’ve noticed that you are often late”. The word “often” is vague and up for debate.

Challenge Your Own Attitudes. Do you know that your own attitudes can actually influence the outcome of the conversation? If you believe the conversation will go badly, it probably will. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. So focus on what you can control, and resist making assumptions about how the conversation will go. This is not the same as preparing for possible responses. You should examine and prepare to respond to likely responses by the other parties, just avoid deciding which one will occur. Also, we bring to our communications all of our personal biases. Yes, we all have them. The more you are self-aware of your biases, the better you will be able to counteract their effect. Remember, someone you don’t like deserves the same professional courtesy, opportunity, and attention that someone you do like.

Focus on resolution, not blame. If someone has done something wrong, the action must be corrected. Focus on the action taken and the action preferred. It is the action that is wrong, not the person. Blame may feel “righteous”, but it doesn’t improve the future. Instead, present your facts, and the message you have planned to deliver, then listen carefully and completely to what the person has to say. Acknowledge their response, whether you agree or not. Then spend the remaining portion of the conversation focusing on how to move forward to a resolution.

Respect Emotions Reactions. While it’s important to acknowledge other’s feelings, you should not participate inappropriately or encourage the emotional reaction. Don’t take any verbal attacks personally. In the case of a highly emotional reaction, silence is a very powerful tool, allowing the other person to re-center themselves. Good preparation will also allow you to to keep your own emotions under control.