Giving Bad News in a Good Way

negative message in positive way

We all like to be liked and thought of as kind people, so resist giving bad news or negative feedback. We tend to put it off, sugar coat it or do the infamous “feedback sandwich.” (Adam Grant on why the feedback sandwich doesn’t work)
Most of these tactics actually make it worse. So we avoid talking about sensitive subjects, postpone telling people they are wrong or just blurt it out.
The good news: you can learn to do it well.
The bad news: you do have to put in effort and practice but it is so worth it…

Three Key Questions

Before you have that conversation, ask yourself 3 questions

  1. What do I want the person to know at the end of the conversation?
  2. What do I want the person to do after we have talked? (Or what do I want to happen?)
  3. How do I want the other person to feel? (how do I want to feel?)

Be honest with yourself and clear about what the best outcome could be.

I’ll give some examples.

On several occasions, I’ve had to make people redundant. After our conversations, I wanted them to know all their options, the process and why it had to happen. After the discussions, I wanted them to understand and be able to decide what was best for them. I hoped they would go away feeling that it wasn’t their fault, their past contribution was valued and that they had a future elsewhere.

As a parent, discipline is part of the job. I make sure my children know I love them.The discipline is so that they act in a way that helps them to be popular, resilient and self-disciplined. I want them to feel positive and motivated to do it right next time.

As a nurse and midwife, I’ve told people of terminal illness and death. It is never easy, and sometimes emotions and anger explode. a I hoped to inform people of the options, help take whatever actions were best for them and reassure them that they are not alone. Just a word of support, a practical gift or a gesture to reach out gives comfort.

Keeping these questions in mind helps one deal with this and not take it personally.

Three Key Principles

  1. Prepare for the conversation. Think about what might help you achieve your best possible outcome.
  2. Treat the other person with dignity and respect. Speak in a way that makes them more likely to listen. Give them the opportunity to speak. Keep their interests in mind.
  3. Be calm, clear, honest and fair. Speak objectively, remove blame and outline options and consequences.

Example of Giving Bad News in a Good Way

I coached Susan before she had to speak to a manager of an organisation whose officer had behaved very badly. Susan was understandably very angry and spent some time telling me how she felt and how she wanted that person to suffer.

I asked her “What would happen if you speak that way in the meeting?”

Susan paused “the manager would just get defensive and stick up for the officer”.

“So how are you going to handle it? Remember what you want to achieve.”

Susan thought about things and prepared. In the meeting, the manager had not been given all the information and it seemed yet another blow to Susan’s trust in the organisation. Yet she kept her cool. She paused and then gave an objective account of what had happened without criticising the officer. Because the manager was appalled at what had happene, she personally committed to putting things right. So, Susan achieved the result she wanted by giving bad news in a good way.

Whatever you do, don’t avoid the conversation…like an infected wound, it will fester. Talk to people not about them.

To learn how to get positive results from negative situations, email me