In the business world, nothing is worse than having to deliver bad news. It can be a performance issue, a layoff, or just the loss of a client. Regardless of what it is, you have to deliver it in a way that respects both yourself and your coworker or client.
In this post, we will go over how to effectively deliver bad news with care by outlining some practical tips for how to do so effectively.
9 Practical Tips for Delivering Bad News
If you are preparing for a difficult conversation, keep these tips in mind. If you want to know exactly what to say, skip ahead to our scripts section.
Pick the right setting
If it’s a one-on-one conversation, find a private location to talk. Difficult emotions might arise, and privacy will make the conversation feel safer and more intimate.
It’s also best to pick the location that will make them feel as safe as possible. If it’s a family member or friend, try to meet them in their home. And if it’s a coworker, see if you can book a private room.
Pick a time for the conversation when you’re not rushed or distracted so that you can have as much time as possible.
It’s also best to have the conversation in person. In a study of bad news given by healthcare professionals to patients1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1279938/, having the conversation over the phone increased the likelihood that the recipient had a negative experience.
Rule of Thumb: When possible always try to deliver bad news in private and never in front of a group.
News spreads fast. You don’t want the bad news to reach your employee, coworker, boss, or customer from another source. If this happens, they might lose respect for you and get caught completely off guard.
It’s common to want to put off hard conversations but try to stop the procrastinatory impulse before it takes hold.
Action Step: if you have bad news to deliver, send the other person a short email right now proposing a time to have the conversation.
Use the right tone
Be clear and concise. It’s natural to feel nervous about upsetting the other person. Especially if your employee seems down or your boss or customer is in a bad mood. But often, this nervousness causes people to deliver their news by talking in circles, using vague words with multiple coats of sugar.
It’s important to be gentle and caring, but not at the expense of your clarity. You don’t want to create extra labor for the other person to figure out what you’re trying to say or, worse yet, create misunderstandings in this tender conversation.
Notice how in the following two examples, the first one is easy to digest and take down, and the second one is confusing and has you strain to understand.
- “I am genuinely sorry to share this news, but we have to end your employment with us.”
- “You’ve been great. Really great. And there’s been some tight budgeting with the company and all kinds of company shifts outside of my control. See, there’s a transition in professional synergies that means we need to move forward with a slightly reconfigured team composition. Organizational dynamics have been evolving, and there’s been some deliberation about staffing and role allocations. And it might imply a shift in your current engagement with us. But maybe things will work out.”
Action Step: Write out the most straightforward way to phrase the hard news in one sentence. Make it clear and concise but also gentle and understanding. Memorize this sentence, and lead with it in your conversation.
Reframe (when the news is in the other person’s control)
It is possible to frame your bad news in an encouraging and motivating light. But if you take this approach, make sure the news relates to something the other person has control over.
For example, suppose you are firing an employee, and they have no control over staying with the company. In that case, it might come off as crass if you say something like, “This is only opening up more aligned opportunities for your future.”
But, if you are giving feedback about unsatisfactory performance where they do have control over improving, instead of just saying, “Your work isn’t up to snuff,” you might also add, “We’ve seen strong work from you in the past and want to figure out how to bring out the high quality of work I know you’re capable of.”
Action Step: Is it appropriate to bring a positive reframe to this conversation? If so, brainstorm a few possible reframes.
Prepare for questions
It’s possible that when they receive the unpleasant news, the other person might respond with a flurry of questions. If you are caught off-guard, it might create confusion and uncertainty. But if you feel ready for whatever is thrown at you, you can continue the conversation with the right balance of firm decisiveness and gentle grace.
Here are a few questions you might expect:
- Why is this happening?
- How was this decision made?
- What does this mean for my future?
- What are the next steps?
- What support will be available to me?
Prepare for an emotional response
If you give difficult news, the other person could experience hurt, anger, fear, or sadness.
After you deliver the news, give them space to say what they need to. If you allow space for them to share whatever is going on, it might not change the news, but it can help them healthily relate to it.
One of the best ways to do this is after all the logistics of the conversation have been talked through, you might ask, “How are you holding up with this news?” And then just let them share as much as they’d like to.
Put yourself in their shoes
Think about all the times you’ve received tough news—whether professional or personal. Times when you got laid off, received harsh feedback, or learned that your kid was sticking gum in their classmates’ hair.
Think about what lessons you can take from those bad news experiences. What felt good? And what felt bad?
Action Step: Set up a roleplay with a friend. In the roleplay, you’ll be the employee or customer you’ll soon meet with, and your friend will be you. Have your friend practice delivering the bad news a few times, and note what verbiage and delivery felt good to hear and what felt bad.
Practice with feedback
If you’d like to handle the conversation as gracefully as possible, it might help to practice. It’s not all that different than giving a speech—the more you practice, the more confident and steady you will be when the big day comes.
Action Step: Ask a friend to help you practice. Act out the conversation with them, and then ask for their feedback on how it went and what could improve. Go three repetitions total to really get comfortable.
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Tips on the Proper Structure for Delivering Bad News
Now that you have some tips for how to approach the conversation, let’s look at the key points that will outline your communication.
Bottom line up front
There is a military acronym, BLUF, which stands for “Bottom Line Up Front.” According to former navy officer Kabil Seghal2https://hbr.org/2016/11/how-to-write-email-with-military-precision, “Military professionals lead their emails with a short, staccato statement known as the BLUF… It declares the purpose of the email and action required…An effective BLUF distills the most important information for the reader.”
Even if the communication doesn’t happen over email, we can learn from this attitude and present the punchline up front. Don’t make the other person wait or guess what’s happening. Don’t build unnecessary tension or nervousness.
Just start with the difficult news.
“Hi [customer], I want to let you know that our product shipment is behind schedule.”
Be transparent with your process
After telling the news and giving it a beat to sink in, let them know what’s happening behind the scenes. How did you come to this decision? Why did this happen? This will show that you have been thinking about the situation and have considered all options.
If it’s difficult news to a customer, it also gives them confidence in your ability to handle this issue and move forward from here.
If it’s difficult news for an employee, it might give some context to help them understand where the decision came from, which might help them better accept the news.
Show empathy and understanding
It’s very likely that your unwelcome news might cause irritation, devastation, or even panic. Difficult emotions will arise.
The more you can show understanding and empathy, the more easeful you will make it for the other person. You don’t have to wait for them to express their emotion—sharing empathetic statements will invite open communication, help them feel understood, and will lessen their emotional charge.
Here are a few statements to try out:
- I know this must be hard for you
- I imagine you’re feeling ______
- It sounds like you’re experiencing ______
- I’ve been in your position before, and I know how much it sucks to hear this news
Offer appreciation and reassurance
If you are delivering news that might decimate the other person’s confidence (such as a layoff, a negative performance review, or a salary reduction), it can be helpful to offer appreciation or reassurance. When they hear the bad news, it might translate in their mind to something like, “You aren’t good enough.”
If you can actively vocalize the opposite, it can help them better accept the news, keep their confidence up, and keep your relationship with them in a good place.
Here are a few statements you could consider expressing:
- Your work has made a huge difference in contributing to our team
- I see how much time and effort you’ve put in
- I’ve noticed how much you’ve grown and progressed
- I know this is tough to swallow, but please know that I believe you’re a creative and efficient worker with a ton to offer
Allow space for their emotional response
As we mentioned before, feelings will likely come up for them.
So after you’ve delivered all the information, it might be nice to give them space to share anything they need to. You could try any of these questions:
- How is all of this landing for you?
- How are you doing?
- I know this is tough to hear. Is there anything you want to share?
Examples and Scripts for Delivering Bad News
Here are a few examples of scenarios to inspire you on what you might say. It’d be best not to take any of these verbatim but to mold them to fit your exact situation.
Examples of delivering bad news to an employee
“I need to share some difficult news with you today. After a lot of deep thought and hard conversations, we’ve decided to end your employment with our company. This decision wasn’t made lightly; we really looked at every alternative we could think of before coming to this conclusion.
I realize this is a significant disappointment, and I genuinely empathize with how you must be feeling right now. I know this is a challenging moment.
I want you to know how much I appreciate your contributions during your time with us. Your efforts have been valued, and this decision is no reflection of you as a person but rather a consequence of the current circumstances.
In terms of the next steps, we’re here to provide support where we can. We are willing to assist you in your transition, be it through job placement services, references, or other ways that might be helpful to you.
I’d like to give you the opportunity to share any thoughts, feelings, or questions you might have..”
Telling someone they won’t receive a promotion
“I wanted to speak with you directly about the recent promotion opportunity you applied for. After careful evaluation, the decision has been made to move forward with another candidate for the role.
Please know that this was not an easy decision. Your application was thoroughly reviewed, and your qualifications, skills, and performance were strongly considered. We recognize the hard work and dedication you’ve shown, and your ambition for career growth is definitely appreciated.
I understand that this might be disappointing news, and it’s completely okay to feel disheartened. It’s a tough situation when your efforts don’t immediately lead to the outcomes you hope for.
Please know we truly value your contributions to the team, and we see your potential. We’re committed to your continued growth and development within the company. There will be more opportunities in the future, and we encourage you to keep striving for them.
At this point, I’d like to open up the floor. Is there anything you want to share or any questions you have about this process or the decision?”
Reducing someone’s salary or benefits
“I’ve called this meeting because we need to discuss a significant change in your role here. Due to some organizational changes, we’ve made the decision to move you to a different role, which also involves a decrease in salary.
I want you to understand that this decision wasn’t taken lightly. There were many difficult discussions and evaluations regarding team structure and individual performance. But we had to make some changes to honor our resources and business needs.
I can imagine that this might feel like a setback, and it’s understandable to feel disappointed or frustrated. This is a challenging situation, and your feelings are completely valid.
However, I want to express our appreciation for your work and contribution to the team. This new role doesn’t diminish your value or the respect we have for you. We believe in your capabilities and see this as an opportunity for you to bring your skills and expertise to a new area in the company.
We’re here to support you through this transition and will do our best to make it as smooth as possible. We’re open to having ongoing discussions about how to navigate this change together.
Now, I’d like to give you the opportunity to voice any thoughts, questions, or concerns you might have about this change. We’re here to listen and answer as best we can.”
Examples of delivering bad news to a customer
“I wanted to reach out to you directly to let you know that, unfortunately, the delivery of your product is going to be delayed.
Our team has been working diligently to fulfill all orders, but due to some unforeseen issues in our supply chain, we’re experiencing some delays that are affecting deliveries, including yours.
I understand that this is not the news you were hoping for, and I truly empathize with any inconvenience this may cause you. We value your time and realize how important it is for you to receive your order as planned.
We deeply appreciate your understanding and patience in this matter. Please be assured that we are doing everything in our power to expedite the process and get your product to you as soon as possible.
At this time, I would like to open up the conversation to you. Do you have any questions, or is there anything specific you would like to discuss regarding this situation?”
“I wanted to discuss an important update regarding our pricing. Due to changes in our production process, we find ourselves in a position where we need to increase the cost of our services.
This decision wasn’t taken lightly. We’ve undertaken a comprehensive review of our expenses, market conditions, and the value we offer. Despite our best efforts to absorb rising costs, we find it necessary to make this adjustment to maintain the quality of our services.
We understand that this might be unexpected news and can appreciate any concerns this may cause. It’s never easy to adjust to price increases, especially when budgets are already set.
That said, we deeply value your business and loyalty. We’re committed to continue providing you with the high-quality service you’ve come to expect from us. We hope that you will understand this decision is in service of that commitment.
Now, I’d like to invite you to share any thoughts or questions you might have about this change. We’re here to listen and to provide any additional information you might need.”
“I need to share some important information regarding your account with us. We recently experienced a data breach that may have compromised your personal information.
As soon as we became aware of the incident, we immediately launched an investigation and brought in external cybersecurity experts to assist. We’re taking all necessary steps to address this situation and have already implemented additional security measures to protect your information.
We understand the seriousness of this situation and the concern it may cause you. The protection of our customers’ information is paramount, and we deeply regret that this has occurred.
We want to assure you that we are committed to maintaining your trust. We will keep you updated on our progress and are offering credit monitoring services at no cost to you for the next year as a measure of our commitment to your security.
If you’d like to share any concerns or questions you may have, we are all ears. We value your feedback and are here to support you through this situation.”
Frequently Asked Questions About How to Deliver Bad News
The 5 primary steps of delivering bad news include: setting the right environment, preparing for questions and possible reactions, delivering the news clearly and concisely, empathizing with the recipient, and allowing space for their emotional responses.
To deliver bad news to a long-term client, communicate clearly, concisely, and respectfully. Be honest about the situation, explain your process, show empathy and reassurance, and give them space to react. A long-term client deserves your full attention during this unpleasant conversation.
To structure the communication of bad news, start with the bottom line up front (BLUF). Then, provide context and details about the situation, show empathy, and offer appreciation or reassurance. Finally, create space for their emotional response and questions.
Leaders deliver bad news with honesty, transparency, and emotional intelligence. They prepare for the conversation, express the news clearly and succinctly, empathize with the receiver’s situation, and provide a safe space for them to express their reaction.
Before delivering bad news, consider the recipient’s perspective, potential reactions, and questions they might have. Prepare a clear, concise message. Choose the right setting and time for the conversation. And think about a positive reframe if appropriate.
To prepare yourself emotionally for delivering bad news, acknowledge your own feelings first. Practice delivering the news with a friend or mentor, seek their feedback, and adjust accordingly. Visualizing the conversation can also help reduce anxiety and emotional stress.
Some common mistakes to avoid when delivering bad news include avoiding the conversation, being vague or overly complex in your language, neglecting empathy, not anticipating questions, and failing to prepare for the recipient’s emotional reaction.
To choose the right words and tone for delivering bad news, opt for clear, direct language and maintain a tone of empathy and understanding. Practice the delivery, ensuring the message is concise and honest. Avoid jargon or overly complicated language that could confuse the recipient.
To deliver bad news in a compassionate manner, use empathetic language, offer reassurance, acknowledge the recipient’s feelings, and provide space for them to respond. Being transparent about your process and reasons can also show compassion.
To handle difficult reactions or emotions from the recipient of bad news, allow them to express their emotions and respond with empathy. Acknowledge their feelings without judgment. Let them know their feelings are valid. Don’t try to change what they’re feeling, but also don’t let their reaction alter your decision. If they become overly emotional, suggest taking a break and resuming the conversation when they’re ready.
Delivering bad news in person is usually preferable, as it allows for real-time interaction and emotional support. However, video calls can also work if in-person isn’t possible. Email should be the last resort, used only when other methods aren’t feasible. To read up more on when to use what mode of communication, check out this article.
Takeaways on Delivering Bad News
Delivering bad news is an inevitable part of business and leadership. However, it’s essential to approach these tough conversations with strategy, empathy, and transparency. Here is a summary of the primary takeaways from this guide:
- Preparation is key: Anticipate potential questions and emotional reactions before the conversation. Practice your delivery for clarity and confidence.
- Timing and setting matter: Choose a private and unhurried setting for the discussion. Don’t delay in delivering bad news to avoid further complications.
- Clear, concise communication: Deliver the news in a straightforward manner. Avoid vagueness or excessive jargon that may confuse or mislead the recipient.
- Empathy and understanding: Acknowledge the recipient’s feelings and respond with empathy. This approach will help to maintain trust and respect.
- Positive reframing: When possible and appropriate, reframe the situation in a positive or constructive light to help the recipient cope better.
- Allow space for emotional response: Let the recipient express their feelings and concerns. This action is crucial for their understanding and acceptance of the situation.
While delivering bad news is never easy, these guidelines can make the process more respectful and less distressing for all parties involved.
If you find that you often get stuck in overthinking loops—not just with delivering bad news, but in other situations as well—then you might enjoy diving into this post.
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