Delivering Bad News

Delivering bad news is never an easy or pleasant task. So it helps to have a strategy for presenting a clear message with a balance of directness and tact. This balance is important because being too direct can shock the listener and make the bad news harder to accept. On the other hand, being too tactful can make the message so vague that the listener may not understand it.

In the following examples, Jake is receiving some bad news from his manager.

Too Direct:

"Jake, we've decided to bring in Marian B. as project manager instead of moving you into that position"

Too Vague: "You know, Jake, you've really been doing a good job holding the project together since Dan left. It's not easy to manage the technical process, the team, the schedule, and be sure everything stays on track. Since this challenge has created a few problems, though, we've been considering different options. Of course, you'll be a key contributor to the project, but we think it would be best if Marian B. assumed the management role."

To deliver bad news as effectively as possible, it's important to include two key elements: a buffer statement that prepares the listener to receive the bad news and a clear statement of the bad news itself.

Buffer: "Jake, I know you've been hoping to get the project manager assignment, and you've been putting in a lot of work. The fact is that this particular project needs someone with broader experience,
Bad News: so we've decided to bring in Marian B. as project manager."

Notice the use of I know followed by the verb constructions you have been hoping and you have been putting in. This phrasing serves as both a recognition of Jake's effort and an indication that in spite of that effort, things may not work out as Jake would like. The next sentence, beginning with The fact is..., gives Jake the explanatory part of the message as further preparation for the bad news.

A buffer statement is not intended to hide the bad news or to somehow make it better. It does provide a verbal red flag that signals bad news ahead. Even a few seconds' warning helps the listener to react appropriately. Also, the speaker's initial expression of understanding or concern shows respect for the listener. The speaker may then follow the bad news with additional comments that will help the listener to process and accept the message.

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