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Communication Skills: How to Deliver Bad News

By |January 11, 2021

In an ideal world, everything would be rosy, and you’d never have to deliver bad news to your direct reports. But there comes a time when every leader needs to give negative feedback or share news the team doesn’t want to hear. The way you approach these delicate conversations will make all the difference in the world.

communication skills

Whenever we’re on the receiving end of bad news, our fight-or-flight response kicks in, and we view the conversation as an attack.

Follow this four-step formula to soften the blow when you’re sharing news you wish you didn’t have to and learn communication skills that will help you reach your full potential as a leader.

1. Start with an Accusation Audit™

In a previous post, I wrote about the CAVIAAR  (curiosity, acceptance, venting, identifying, Accusation Audit, remember) method, which can guide you through difficult conversations in which you have to confront a fellow leader.

When you have to share bad news, you can use this approach. But pay special attention to the Accusation Audit component because the AA™ is the key to mitigating the negative emotions inherent in the person who’s receiving the message.

So, prior to sharing the bad news, spend some time thinking about what the situation would look like from your direct report’s perspective. If you were them what would you be thinking about you and/or the circumstances?

The point of an Accusation Audit is to give the other side time to brace themselves. To illustrate, your AA might sound  something like this: I’m about to ruin your day. You’re going to think I’m imposing my will on you, that we’re disorganized and aren’t producing enough, and that we don’t know which direction we want to take the organization.

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2. Follow Up with Dynamic Silence™

In order to ensure your AA has the highest impact, you need to follow each with Dynamic Silence to give your words more space to land.

When you set up the bad news with an AA followed by Dynamic Silence,it gives the AA an opportunity to sink in for effect.  During the silence, our employee will go to the far end of the fear spectrum, imagining all sorts of horrific things.  When you ultimately deliver the news it is always far better than what they thought it would be. 

3. Lay Out the Bad News

After you’ve counted a few seconds of silence to let your words marinate, it’s time to lay out the bad news. You’ve used an AA and Dynamic Silence together, so now its time to deliver the bad news.

There are a few things to keep in mind here:

  • The other side is still a person. So use softeners—such as I’m sorry and I’m afraid—throughout your delivery to ensure the other side knows you’re apologetic about having to be the bearer of bad news.
  • How you say something is five times more important than what you say. Your tone of voice is critical here. Make sure you project sincerity and do everything you can to mitigate the other side’s heightened negative emotional state.
  • Never deliver bad news over email. It screams that you don’t care, don’t want to interact, and are afraid of the responses you might get. It’s offensive, and you also lose out on a ton of information.

4. Anticipate an Adverse Response   

When you’re sharing bad news, you need to anticipate a bad response. So, when you’ve conveyed the message, you have to sit tight and make sure you don’t respond to whatever comes next with any emotion.

More often than not, your “bad news” won’t be seen as such a big deal after all. Your employee might think that they are going to lose their job, so being asked to stay an hour later will be a relief compared to what they anticipated.

Still, different people react to bad news differently. In the event the news throws your employee into a mini-crisis state, mitigate those emotions by staying curious.  Interestingly enough, curiosity will also prevent you from being triggered.

At the end of the day, people want other people to understand what their environment looks like. By using Tactical Empathy™, you can demonstrate that you understand the impact the bad news has on them and determine what within their response needs to be addressed in order for you to defuse their negative emotions and return them to a normally functioning level.  

Sharing bad news isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. But as a leader, it comes with the territory. As long as you are making an attempt to understand the impact of the bad news on the other side, you’ll do just fine.

Ready to continue your journey to becoming a better leader? Check out our free guide: The Black Swan Group Leadership Guide.

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