Somebody Has To Do It – How To Share Bad News At Work

I went out the other evening with my wife to see the movie, Bridget Jones’s Baby. Without getting into any details at all and therefore wrecking the experience for you…..please go and see this film.  You will laugh your socks off! (which is a British idiom that means it’s very, very funny!).

In the movie, there’s a scene where one character says to another character, “It is always better to tell the truth.”

And that is partly the theme of this blog post.

Often, in the workplace, when we are in a position of having to give someone bad news, we sometimes consider sugar-coating the information because we don’t want to hurt their feelings.  According to Maslow, it is natural for us to want people to like us and we feel that by giving someone bad news, this will turn the person away from us. We might spend time (and energy) trying to find a way of avoiding giving the person the news altogether.All pointless since we know deep down, that we have to do this.

We also know that being honest with the person is definitely better than the previous versions. These ‘avoidance’ or ‘disguising’ strategies will likely not resolve the problem with and/or will likely just confuse the person whom you are talking to in the first place.

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So how do we deliver bad news?

In their book, How to Have Difficult Conversations (Penguin, 2000), the authors (Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen) title one of their chapters, There Is No Such Thing As A Diplomatic Hand Grenade.

I love that statement because, in one succinct sentence, it reminds us clearly that some conversations simply cannot be sugar-coated.

The authors propose that these Difficult Conversations fall into one of three categories or “conversations”, each of which needs to be handled differently.

  1. The What Happened? Conversation is where we spend much of our time struggling with the different stories about who’s right, who meant what and who’s to blame. However, the place where we often mess up is not demonstrating curiosity (or even thinking) about how the other person sees the situation.
  2. The Feelings Conversation is filled with concerns about emotions. The question is not whether strong feelings will occur (we know that they will occur, otherwise, this would not be so hard for us).  How do we handle them when they do? Expressing our feelings can expose our vulnerabilities especially if the other person rejects or dismisses them as invalid.
  3. The Identity Conversation is the conversation we have with ourselves about the situation and what it means to us. Does this conversation we are about to have with the other person mean that we are a good person or a bad person? (insert thoughts regarding self-esteem here…)

The consistent theme that runs through our Difficult Conversations is that we are primarily making assumptions about how we think the other person views the situation.

This is a critical mistake.

It is critical because it changes everything.

In his book How To Tell Anyone Anything (Amacom, 2009), Richard Gallagher suggests using the C.A.N.D.I.D. approach to having those tough conversations…which are usually filled to the brim with bad news.

  • Compartmentalize the message to create a neutral opening
  • Ask questions based on the other person’s response
  • Normalize the situation
  • Discuss the details – factually and neutrally
  • Incentivize the outcome
  • Disengage from the discussion

The idea here is to create a framework around which you can control the messaging whilst at the same time create space for the other person to share their reactions and responses.

Preparation is key

You have heard the proverbs about planning: Poor Planning Prevents Poor Performance or If You Fail To Plan You Are Planning To Fail.

In an ideal world, you would give people the bad news in a straightforward and honest way, and the recipient of that bad news would appreciate the honesty. Everybody would live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, you live on Planet Earth!

So, the reality of the situation you face when preparing to give bad news to someone is just that…PREPARE.

Script out what you are going to say to the person.

Question: How would you do this if the person was a relative or a close friend?

Answer: You would deliver the news with empathy, with compassion and a touch of tough love if the situation required it.

Have that person in mind when you script the bad news conversation.

And tell yourself that you only have one shot at this…so make it count!

Think about the words that you are going to use as well as the words and phrases that you are definitely not going to use.

Think about the questions that you are going to ask this person.

Questions have so many uses.

  • Questions provide information for you
  • Questions give the other person a voice
  • Questions open up space for dialogue

Your most powerful tool is EMPATHY

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary tell us that Empathy means:

  • The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions

You can’t do this authentically unless you ask the other person questions.

Once you have scripted out the essence of the conversation that you are going to have, you might even run it by someone that has no connection with the situation to see how things sound when the words come out of your mouth.

Humans suffer from ‘flight or fight syndrome’ when faced with stress and things can go very wrong very quickly if we haven’t thought about how we are going to respond to things ahead of time.

I have heard it said that in the world of human resources you might consider starting these tough moments with a caveat such as, “There is no easy way to say this…..

This might be a useful tool for you to use perhaps since it sets you on a road that would be hard to deviate from other than to share that bad news with the person.

My plan when I started writing this blog post was to convey four central themes to you when you are about to give bad news to someone. Each is important.

  • The importance of PREPARATION
  • The importance of EMPATHY
  • The importance of HONESTY
  • The importance of QUESTIONS

And don’t forget to check in with the person after a suitable gap…to make sure they’re doing okay. And don’t make assumptions that they are.

Some last thoughts about these bad news moments:

People are looking for validation that things (and they) are alright. Remember Maslow…we are right back there again. You must recognize that this is how we are all wired.

Your ‘closing’ frames the future relationship. It’s natural for people to be concerned with their future working relationship with you and you must allay those fears (which will often be unspoken).

People remember the last thing you say. I had a manager once whose parting comment after meetings was often, “Keep up the mediocre work.” I don’t remember the substance of the meetings because I was focused so much on that parting shot before the door closed.

People remember the last thing you say.