Delivering bad news is hard. Here’s how to get better at it

At one point in your life, you will find yourself in a role where you must deliver bad news. For some of us—such as the doctors or managers out there—this role might be played on a regular basis. And while it’s a part of life, that doesn’t make it any easier to be the messenger with bad news.

Knowing how to competently deliver the message is one aspect of this, but another key component is how to handle reactions. In a recent study, researchers described how a human’s necessity to make meaning out of all events—especially bad ones—can cause us to unfairly confer ill intent upon the person delivering the news. In other words, there’s a tendency to “shoot the messenger.”

With all this mind, we ask the question: how can we best deliver bad news? These lessons below should give you a better idea.

Provide a warning: It’s good to psychologically prepare with phrases such as, “I’ve got some bad news.” What this does is reduce the shock that recipients might feel when hearing the information. By lowering expectations, you create a setting where bad news can be better delivered.

Rehearse your delivery: When delivering bad news, you want to come over with confidence and humility. The trick to this is practicing your talking points and body language before you actually deliver the news.

Be fully present with key stakeholders: When delivering bad news, face-to-face is best, followed by videoconference, then telephone to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings and escalations. Avoid written delivery if possible as it doesn’t provide the opportunity to clarify points. Another good thing to do is a check-in with those stakeholders afterward to see what you can do to help or if you need to shore up the relationship after being the bearer of bad news.

Convey benevolent intent: Be aware of your audience’s bias to view you as harboring malevolent motives. Counteract this by expressing empathy. If you can show people that this negative thing can be used to motivate something positive, it will display that, while you are the messenger, you don’t wish to bring forward negativity.

Explain—avoid justifying: It’s critical to give an adequate accounting of the relevant facts that allows your audience to understand what occurred. Done well, your audience will perceive you as sincere, trustworthy, and will find your explanation is sufficiently detailed and reasonable. 

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Delivering bad news is hard. Here’s how to get better at it

At one point in your life, you will find yourself in a role where you must deliver bad news. For some of us—such as the doctors or managers out there—this role might be played on a regular basis. And while it’s a part of life, that doesn’t make it any easier to be the messenger with bad news.

Knowing how to competently deliver the message is one aspect of this, but another key component is how to handle reactions. In a recent study, researchers described how a human’s necessity to make meaning out of all events—especially bad ones—can cause us to unfairly confer ill intent upon the person delivering the news. In other words, there’s a tendency to “shoot the messenger.”

With all this mind, we ask the question: how can we best deliver bad news? These lessons below should give you a better idea.

Provide a warning: It’s good to psychologically prepare with phrases such as, “I’ve got some bad news.” What this does is reduce the shock that recipients might feel when hearing the information. By lowering expectations, you create a setting where bad news can be better delivered.

Rehearse your delivery: When delivering bad news, you want to come over with confidence and humility. The trick to this is practicing your talking points and body language before you actually deliver the news.

Be fully present with key stakeholders: When delivering bad news, face-to-face is best, followed by videoconference, then telephone to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings and escalations. Avoid written delivery if possible as it doesn’t provide the opportunity to clarify points. Another good thing to do is a check-in with those stakeholders afterward to see what you can do to help or if you need to shore up the relationship after being the bearer of bad news.

Convey benevolent intent: Be aware of your audience’s bias to view you as harboring malevolent motives. Counteract this by expressing empathy. If you can show people that this negative thing can be used to motivate something positive, it will display that, while you are the messenger, you don’t wish to bring forward negativity.

Explain—avoid justifying: It’s critical to give an adequate accounting of the relevant facts that allows your audience to understand what occurred. Done well, your audience will perceive you as sincere, trustworthy, and will find your explanation is sufficiently detailed and reasonable. 

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