Communication Breakdown: Giving Bad News

Most of us dread giving bad news. No matter the context, we would rather focus on the positive when we interact with others.  For those of us that have to deliver bad news, it can be a real ordeal to accept the reality, practice the message, fight the anxiety, and deliver the news.

I recently took my better half to a nice dinner to celebrate the end of a really busy month of work, kids, and extended family.  We arrived at the restaurant and basked in the reality of an actual date night before we started looking at the menu.  Everything looked good, but we found an appetizer that seemed perfect.  As we read the description, we could almost taste the combination of flavors that the narrative described.  The waiter came over, introduced himself, and took our order.  We talked for a few minutes between ourselves and started to relax before the waiter returned.  His body language was tense and almost agitated. He tried to smile as his hands seemed to have nowhere to go from his chronic fidgeting.  He looked away from us as he spoke and stared telling us a variety of random facts about himself: what his family was like, other jobs he had in the past, and where he lived in relation to the restaurant.  This seemed a little odd to us as we kept looking up from our table and smiling at him.  After a few minutes of wondering what he was trying to tell us, we realized that he must have bad news of some sort.

He was trying his best to not tell us that the kitchen had run out of the appetizer we thought would be perfect.  However, he was caught in the dilemma of needing to tell us we cannot have the appetizer, but not wanting to give us bad news.  After he walked away, we sat there with multiple levels of frustration: we were not going to have the appetizer, we were told a considerable amount of unrelated information, and no real solution to our expectations was offered.

Although this is a simple personal example, most of us encounter this dilemma on a regular basis.  If you are a leader, you spend part of your time briefing employees on bad unit or organizational results, discussing customer concerns and complaints, giving feedback on performance, breaking the news that someone else was promoted, and explaining that a person is no longer needed.  As a human resource professional, the list of “bad news” items can be even longer, especially as organizations are employing human resources more when  organizational communication is required or portions of the operation needs to be brought into compliance.

So, how can you communicate bad news and expect the best results? There are a variety of ideas on how to deliver bad news, but the simplest approach is probably the best:

  • Explain the situation clearly
  • Provide an Empathic Apology
  • Offer Alternatives

Explain the Situation Clearly

It is common for the deliverer of bad news to “dress the message up” to make things sound better than they are.  Although the desire to reduce the impact of the message illustrates a certain amount of empathy, it normally backfires when the receiver has a hard time discerning the point.  As the receiver of the information filters the content of the message, he or she gravitates to the least positive portion and many times discards the remainder.  As an example, if you tell an employee all the great things about them before delivering the message that he or she is on probation, the employee still focuses most on the negative element.  This is not to say that positive and negative information cannot be combined to reduce the stress of bad news, but the message needs to be as clear and straightforward as possible.  “Candy coating” is used by most of us on a regular basis, but it should not replace honesty and clarity. In addition, it is important to provide enough information and examples that the receiver can fully grasp the issue and concern.  How many times has an employee come to you and confessed that he or she did not meet expectations, but have no idea why?  If the situation involves people, processes, or requirements, make sure you present the issue, provide examples, and explain why the issue is important.

Provide an Empathic Apology

We all make mistakes and part of a successful relationship requires asking for forgiveness of the offended party when a mistake is made.  Considerable research has been conducted on the impact of an apology when a customer is angry and a simple apology coupled with sincere empathy makes a big difference in successful resolution and future satisfaction.  Gallup research has shown that a genuine apology can actually strengthen a customer’s emotional bond to a company, leaving him or her more emotionally connected than customers who never experienced a problem. Even if you are not the cause of the issue or failure, it is important of the receiver to know you share their concern or disappointment.  The worst thing that we can do is default to the idea that we did not cause the issue, so we should not have to apologize for it.  People desire connections and especially when receiving bad news.

Offer Alternatives

It is human nature to want a solution when bad news or a shortfall is presented.  If the message is that individual, team, or organizational performance is not what was hoped, the next thought for most of us is what we can do about it.  Even in the restaurant example above, the waiter would have made us feel better if he had offered another suggestion that he felt was just as tasty.  How many times have you listened to leaders give bad news, be asked what can be done to fix the situation, and respond that he or she does not know?  In times of crisis, it is human nature to seek a solution, a direction, or some semblance of a plan.

Next time you have bad news to deliver, prepare by asking yourself if you have each of the elements listed above.  Anticipate the reaction and response of the receiver of the communication and how you can best deliver your message and accomplish the intended goal.

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