Deliver Bad News Confidently
There isn’t a person in business (or life) who hasn’t had to be the “bearer of bad tidings.” But, we avoid it. Instead, we dance around an issue and hope the “bad news,” will deliver itself. It won’t.
When I was a TV news reporter, I applied for a job at WTNH in New Haven, CT. After the News Director looked at my demo reel, he said, “Actually, you’re too experienced for us.” What? Too experienced?” If I had the confidence then, I would have told him, “Tell me you don’t like the way I write, or my reporting style, or how I look, but don’t tell me, “You’re ‘too experienced.’”
I didn’t say anything, though, and always wondered, “Why didn’t that guy hire me?”
By not telling me the truth (even if it stung), that News Director held me back from getting better. I wish he’d told me the truth.
When WE hold-back from having those “tough talks,” we also hold onto the negative emotions or don’t get to hear the other person’s side, or don’t give them a chance to change. Most importantly? We can’t help them.
Also, we “make-up stories” about what’s going to happen. They’ll hate me. They’ll talk about me. Or, they’ll be so emotional, that I won’t know what to do.
So, how do you deliver bad news?
Stanley Fertig, who’s had a long corporate career, says, “Do not “ad-lib” bad news. Plan what you’re going to say and practice saying it. If there’s a chance for a legal dispute, review it with your lawyer first. And, Stanley says, “Don’t say how ‘sorry’ you are. That will make someone feel worse, and it might give them ‘false’ hope.”
Pat Welch is the co-founder & CEO of Boly:Welch, a prominent recruiting agency in Portland. Oregon. Pat says, “I give bad news all the time and, I’ve learned, to keep it brief! Five minutes, max. Pat starts with something positive, like, “We are really impressed with you, but we’ve hired someone who has the exact-experience that the company is looking for.”
Pat says, “it’s tough, but one of the kindest things you can do, is to let a person know they didn’t get the job, so they can move one.
In my experience, the best way to deliver negative news is to use “I” statements. Then, state the issue:
“I’ve noticed that you’re consistently late for meetings.”
“I’m concerned about you not meeting your goals”
“I wanted to speak to you directly because we decided not to go with your proposal.”
Then, ask them, “What are your thoughts?”
Expect people to get defensive. Then, acknowledge them, by saying, “I hear you, and I can understand why you feel that way.”
End the conversation by saying, “Thank you for having this conversation. I know it was difficult or awkward or uncomfortable.”
Be empathetic, but not emotional.
Delivering bad news is never easy, but it can become easier, with practice. Practicing these hard conversations, will help grow your confidence, your “leadership style,” and build relationships where people trust you because you told them the truth.