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It’s Not You, It’s Me: How To Deliver Bad News in the Professional World

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April 05, 2022  |  By Liza Vammen

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If you’ve ever had to be on either end of a breakup, you’ve had to deal with bad news messaging. It isn’t a pleasant experience for either party. And, as anyone who has been through a breakup knows, there are ways to make this process worse and painfully drawn out. Delivering bad news in the professional environment can be just as messy if it isn’t handled with care. Today, I’m going to walk through the best ways to deliver bad news in a professional environment. Building this skill early in your career will help you become a more conscientious, empathetic leader. 
Let’s face it, bad news is inescapable. Some people try to skirt around delivering bad news because, frankly, it’s uncomfortable. To avoid being the bearer of bad news people often delay the inevitable, which ultimately makes the situation harder to fix. Or they might use cryptic language that indirectly hints to the problem without actually saying it, leaving their recipient confused and frustrated. This situation happens because people delivering the bad news do not want to play the villain. However, if you are planning on leading or making progress in your career, being the bearer of bad news is a role you’ll have to play. Not only that, but if you learn to do this tactfully, this rare but valuable communication skill will give you a competitive advantage over people who struggle to have those difficult, but necessary, conversations.  
Keep in mind that progress is paired with solving problems, and solving problems often means delivering bad news to someone. Being able to deliver bad news well frames you as a leader who can foster growth and positive change.  
With that in mind, here are four bad news delivery tips:  

1. Consider the best medium.

Not using the correct medium of communication could reveal that you are afraid to have tough conversations which hinders your credibility as a leader and professional. So, consider the severity of news and the relationship you have with the recipient and ask yourself if you should give the bad news in person, on the phone, or by email. More serious news should be face-to-face, whereas less serious news can take a less personal medium like email. For instance, telling a customer that their product will be delivered a few days later than expected would suffice over email. However, telling an employee that they are not getting an expected raise is a serious message that deserves a more serious, face-to-face medium.  

2. When writing, communicate the context and reasoning before giving the bad news.

In most business messaging, I tell writers to get to the point as quickly as possible because their reader only has time to skim messages. However, in the case of sharing negative information, I’d suggest providing detailed reasoning first. This ensures that your audience understands the why before they get defensive about the what. If you provide what is wrong first, you might lose your audience to their defensive emotions and thoughts before you get a chance to explain why the issue exists. This why is important because understanding the context can help the recipient move forward with alternate plans. It may not prevent an emotional reaction from your recipient – after all, you’re delivering bad news and they are well within their rights to be upset by it – but it will at least guarantee they hear your rationale before becoming upset. 
Recently, my husband and I hired a flooring contractor to replace our 15-year-old carpets. After we tetrised our final piece of furniture into our kitchen, I found an email from the contractor informing me that installation process would be delayed. His reason for the delay was that they were missing some flooring boxes and that he is waiting to hear from the vendor. The contractor gave me context to understand why they wouldn’t be coming the scheduled installation day. Was I disappointed? Yes. Disappointed that they weren’t coming at the scheduled time and that I didn’t think to check my email before moving our heavy furniture. However, I could swallow this pill because I understood the reason. I could even appreciate that they wanted to avoid having our floors torn up for an indefinite amount of time. If the contractor didn’t attempt to contact me and just didn’t show up, that lack of context would have been a harder pill to swallow. This brings us to my next point. 

3. Be clear.

When it is time to name the problem don’t try to sugar coat the bad news or make excuses. Just like in the bad breakup line “it’s not you, it’s me,” the cover up is easy to see through and hurts your credibility. At worst, it can seem like a cowardly approach and can make the recipient feel insulted and even more frustrated once they deduce what actually is going on. An important aspect of delivering bad news is giving your audience the chance to understand the problem and some space to process the news. If the past few years during a pandemic have taught us anything, it is that people are resilient and adaptable. Avoiding the problem or trying to cover it up only makes the process more painful and drawn out. Clearly state the problem so that people can understand and, with time, move past the problem towards a solution. 
That said, your tone and word choice should be respectful and humane. Using empathetic language can help the recipient take in the issue. However, even if you provide the context and have all the logical reasons in the world to explain the bad news, understand that the recipient will likely feel frustrated or disappointed. Just because the flooring contractor told me why he wouldn’t be installing my floor in an apologetic tone, didn’t mean I didn’t feel frustrated. Bad news is a part of life and people are allowed to be upset.  

4. Focus on the future.

After acknowledging the bad news, focus on what comes next. Come up with the next steps and potential solutions the recipient may choose from. Providing these choices allows the recipient to take ownership of the solution. This last step is an essential part of the bad news communication that is often overlooked.   

Speaking of which, we have yet to hear about that missing box or from our contractor with an update and have since moved our furniture back into the living space. If our contractor had given us a timeline of when he would be contacting us and a list of our options while we wait, we wouldn’t feel like we’re in limbo. That said, when you are thinking about delivering bad news, your message should show that you’ve come across a problem as well as the fact that you are a problem solver. This approach takes the burden off of the recipient to figure out solutions from scratch while they are still processing the issue. It also makes you a reliable professional who can handle themselves when things go wrong. If you provide the next steps, you might even speed up the time it takes for the recipient to process the bad news because you’ve refocused their attention on the next step. 

Let’s recap. Using the appropriate medium to give bad news demonstrates that you understand the severity of the issue. The structure of a bad news message should be: Past, present, future. This structure is less jarring than frontloading the message and will help the audience understand the situation before getting on the defense right away. And, when you do address the present issue, be present and forthright. Being able to withstand discomfort without diminishing someone’s reaction shows an emotional maturity that can build trust. However, once you’ve acknowledged the issue, that doesn't mean you should dwell. Bad things happen. We are resilient professionals who can adapt by looking to the future and learning from our losses. 
Like an overdue breakup ending a stalled relationship, bad news can be the catalyst to healthy change. Following these bad news delivery tips makes that first step toward change a little easier.  

Post Author:

Liza VammenLiza Vammen is the Associate Director of the Business Communication Lab at the Sam M. Walton College of Business. She received her bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish and master’s degree in English with a focus on Rhetoric from the University of Arkansas. For more, connect with her on LinkedIn.