Tips for Breaking Bad News

Posted on May 3, 2016 By

The other day I opened a letter from my health insurance provider only to read the following terse statement. “NOTES 01: – Your plan does not cover your claim of $2,000 dollars.”

It was bad news – I was expecting a cheque reimbursing me for some major dental work I had done. It wasn’t even a letter. It reminded me more of the Monopoly chance card: “Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”

The unpleasant news was delivered so bluntly that it kind of took my breath away. Surely they could have at least written something like, “Dear Sandra, unfortunately the terms of your plan do not cover X, Y and Z. Better luck next time.” Anything to soften the blow!

Breaking and receiving unfortunate news is something we all experience throughout our lives. However, there are worse ways and better ways to share unpleasant news, and the good ways make it a little easier for those on the receiving end.

Understanding how to communicate bad news is particularly important in these post-recessionary, challenging economic times. Whether the unfortunate news is about job loss or just telling the guy in your office, who thinks pulling practical jokes is funny, that it’s not, it would be wise to consider the following tips for imparting news that may not be welcome.

My Top Five Tips for Delivering Bad News

Pro-to-Pro: Be professional and treat the other person as a professional. By this I mean, use professional language whether the bad news is delivered in person or by email.

Good Bad News: If there is any good news you might share, do that first. Or, give the person an option. “There’s good news and bad news, which do you prefer to hear first?” If there are two bits of good news, you might choose the “sandwich” approach: good news, bad news, good news. Another strategy is to downplay the bad by focusing on the good.

Empathize and Apologize: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how you would feel if you were receiving the bad news. Don’t be overly emotional, but do acknowledge the other person’s emotional reaction. And apologize for being the bearer of bad news. It won’t make the news any better; it will humanize the situation.

Honest and Direct: Although you must strive to be professional, empathetic, and positive, you also have to be accurate and honest with details. If the practical joker in the office is driving everyone else crazy, you have to tell him the truth. “Look, Practical Joker, I’ve had numerous complaints about your practical joking. I’m sorry to ruin your fun, but it simply has to stop.”

Constructive and Creative: If there is anything you can say that will be helpful and constructive, by all means say it. In the case of a layoff, it may mean informing the person that Human Resources will provide information about career counseling and resume development. In the case of the Practical Joker, it might be suggesting he find a computer game to play… on his lunch hour.

The truth is, of course, that delivering bad news is challenging. I recently did a workshop with senior managers about how to offer criticism to their teams. (They were dealing with matters ranging from lateness to under-performing employees.) Among their issues was a tendency to put off delivering the news. And when they did deliver it – by email – they often used brusque language and inappropriate formatting.

So, the next time you have to tell someone “Go straight to jail,” try, at least, to soften it with something like this: “I’m sorry to have to break the news that you won’t be collecting $200 dollars this time around. And even if you go straight to jail, the good news is, you can still get back out, because there’s always another chance card.

If your boss tells you don’t write well or you don’t get responses to your email messages, The Language Lab, founded by Dr. Sandra Folk, is a company that specializes in improving the business writing and presentation skills of executives and their employees, both nationally and internationally.

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