How to Succeed in Sharing Bad News by: Phil Alsup

How to Succeed in Sharing Bad News

There’s a long history to people not liking to receive bad news. In fact you may have even heard the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” before. In several countries as far as ancient warfare etiquette it was considered bad form to harm a messenger as he went back and forth between his own army and the army of the enemy. In fact, in some European countries the town crier was protected by law against anyone harming him by bringing unwelcome news of increased taxes and such from the King. Today there are whistle-blower laws to protect those who might need to share news of illegal or unethical activity in their workplace.

Sadly, however, there aren’t many protections in place for our one-on-one relationships when we have to share bad news. Whether that’s sharing with a friend or an employer it’s not easy. There are, however, right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Believe it or not in many cases you can come away with a renewed respect from someone when you demonstrate you are forthright enough to tell them something they may not have wanted to hear. Let’s look at some facilitating skills that can help you navigate this tricky situation with a friend or a boss.

Believe it or not in many cases you can come away with a renewed respect from someone when you demonstrate you are forthright enough to tell them something they may not have wanted to hear.

  • Set the situation. This may sound like common sense but sometimes a perceived urgency could override our judgment. When you need to share bad news first assess the time and the place. What else is this person dealing with? Is this an environment that risks embarrassing them? Is there time in the schedule to thoroughly talk through the issue? Consider potential environmental factors before jumping into the conversation.
  • Set the conversation. You never want to sideswipe someone with bad news. Everyone needs a mental cue to set his or her orientation for the conversation. This starts with a simple “I need to talk to you about some bad news.” Jumping right into it without warning can put the listener into a defensive mode and undercut the conversation before it begins. Beginning with the proper opening to set up the conversation, waiting a breath for them to respond with an affirmative, and then moving into the conversation is a good strategy for getting off to a good start.
  • Set the bar for character. Your disposition for the conversation is the single biggest factor for how this will go. If you come in with an attitude of blame shifting or finger-pointing you are likely communicating something about your character. Most of the time, at least in the workplace, the initial concern isn’t what went wrong or who is to blame, it’s the understanding of the problem and the next steps. Don’t fall into the trap of coming in with an attitude of “I’m not to blame.” That will hurt your character every time.

If you will come into the conversation owning that there is a problem, you know what next steps should be, and that you are dedicated to finding and helping to fix whatever the root cause is then that’s generally enough for the first conversation. You can later offer to lead a post-study on the issue to look for recommendations on how to avoid the problem in the future but first order of business is addressing what is immediate. Coming in with proposed action steps is a solid move and can help you gain trust with your supervisor.

Calmly thinking through a plan and a demonstration of team building over blame shifting shows who you are in tough times.

In the end unforeseen problems are tests of your character. What do you exhibit? Panic? Fear? Inaction? These are chances to demonstrate what you are made of. Calmly thinking through a plan and a demonstration of team building over blame shifting shows who you are in tough times. These are the qualities of a leader seeking to exemplify Christ. Though none of us wake up hoping to receive bad news, when it happens (and it will) we have remarkable chances to define and demonstrate our character. Be the person that rises above.

Go Deeper: