5 Mistakes to Avoid When You Have to Share Bad News

Have you ever let emotion get the best of you in a difficult conversation?

Posted Dec 11, 2016

Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock
Source: Rocketclips, Inc./Shutterstock

Delivering bad news is one of the greatest challenges we face. Especially for novice managers in the workplace, the experience of delivering bad news during a layoff conversation or a negative performance review can be surprisingly emotional. One might feel sympathy for the victim. One can feel confused, frustrated, or angry about the fact that they have to deliver the message in the first place, especially if it’s a message they don't necessarily endorse. And they can feel nervous about doing something they know is going to cause someone pain and discomfort.

Along with my colleague Joshua Margolis, I have studied these conversations for many years, and one thing we discovered is that when we fail to keep our emotions in check while delivering bad news, we can fall prey to five different dysfunctional conversation types:

1. Bargaining

This is when you allow a conversation to become a negotiation when it really can’t be one. For example, when employees receive negative news, it’s the most natural thing in the world to engage in what one manager in our study called the “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 is a message you have to deliver, you can’t fall into this trap. You certainly can (and should be) compassionate with your delivery, but you cannot stray from your message.

2. Cushioning

You’ve probably seen or heard of someone breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend in such an indirect or obtuse way that the person doesn’t even understand they’re being dumped. Cushioning is when, as the person delivering a negative message, you soften the blow, but in doing so, end up confusing the other person because they have no idea what you’re really saying. This is far from uncommon in the corporate world. In one organization we studied, managers were told to mention "termination" within the first 10 seconds of a meeting in order to guard against this exact dysfunctional conversation type.

3. Unloading

With unloading, the person delivering the message simply can’t control his or her feelings. They unload by delivering the message in a hurried, panicked way, freeing themselves of the emotional burden they've carried and unloading it onto the victim. And as you can imagine, the message that ends up being delivered is often less than dignifying and sensitive.

4. Arguing

Sometimes people receiving negative news feel it’s unfair. They want to fight back and argue. 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. For example, executives at one company we worked with told managers to listen and allow employees to vent, but to then restate their message, clearly and succinctly. It can feel impersonal, but this method avoids arguing and enables you to deliver the message you intend to.

5. Mechanizing

Mechanizing means you let emotion get the best of you. But, instead of arguing, you detach. You distance or become robotic, delivering the message in a stilted, awkward style that—just like the other dysfunctional conversation types—is hardly dignifying, albeit for different reasons.

Nobody wants to fail at delivering bad news. But unless we learn to control our emotions and recognize these dysfunctional conversation types, it's unlikely we'll be able to treat the recipients of our messages with the dignity they deserve.

Have you ever let emotion get the best of you in a difficult conversation?