Few people like to deliver bad news. But the ability to do so with grace and compassion is an essential skill for any leader or manager. Here are some essential tips I’ve discovered based on interviews with more than 40 managers about delivering bad news in a professional and compassionate manner.
1. Prepare for the conversation.
You never want to "wing it" when delivering bad news. The conversation can get heated and emotional. Sometimes people receiving negative news feel it's unfair. They want to fight back and argue. And as a person delivering the message, you can't let this happen. You need to control yourself in a way that diffuses a potential conflict instead of fueling the fire. You want to prepare for what you're going to say (even potentially scripting out a few opening phrases). You want to prepare for their reaction—and for your reaction to their reaction.
2. Remind yourself why it's necessary in the first place.
No one likes to deliver bad news. But it will be easier to do if you feel justified in delivering it. So, as much as you can, remind yourself beforehand why you're doing this. And if you weren't the original decision-maker, find out how and why the decision was made, what the rationale was, and what other possibilities were considered. You want to step into the situation with a very clear sense of why what you're about to do is justified and legitimate.
3. Be direct, but also as compassionate as you can be.
You don't want to sugarcoat bad news, but you also don't need to be cold or robotic in delivering it. Get right to the point; explain the rationale; leave no room for misinterpretation; and be calm, present, and as compassionate as you can possibly be.
4. Think carefully about location.
Make sure to deliver the news in a place that is private, minimizes embarrassment, and allows the other person to maintain their dignity. But at the same time, think about your own safety and well-being as well, because difficult conversations can get emotional very quickly.
5. Don't bargain.
Don't allow the conversation to become a negotiation when it really can't be one. When employees receive negative news, it's the most natural thing in the world to engage in a "but why?" conversation. "But why do you have to do this?" "But why is this necessary?" "But why does it have to be me?" Assuming this truly is a message you have to deliver, you can't fall into this trap of the "but why" conversation and stray from your message.
In the end, we all want to deliver bad news with dignity and respect. And with these tips in mind, you'll have a good chance of achieving that goal.
Also see my best tips on stepping outside your comfort zone at work.