Tips for Tactfully Delivering Bad News

Joe Weinlick
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From losing clients to shrinking bonuses, bad news is bound to come up when you're a leader. If you learn to manage difficult conversations, you have a better chance of working through conflicts and keeping your team engaged. While it's tempting to hide from challenges, building effective communication skills in hard times helps you grow as a leader. The next time you have bad news, use these tips to deliver your message with tact.

Consider Other Perspectives

Don't assume everyone processes information the same way you do. Employees have different perspectives based on their stake in the situation, so try imagining how your news might affect them. Consider what others stand to lose or gain, and use your insights to approach difficult conversations in the most positive light. For example, employees may be more supportive of budget cuts if the goal is to prevent downsizing.

Practice Your Delivery

Think about what you plan to say before speaking to employees, especially if you're announcing a company-wide issue. Choosing the wrong words can put others in defensive mode, making them less likely to listen with an open mind. No one wants to feel attacked or blamed, so avoid an accusatory tone or demeanor.

Tailor the Communication Style

Awkwardness is inevitable, but it gets easier to navigate difficult conversations the more you build rapport with colleagues. If you're communicating one on one, customize the message for the specific person. Some employees need positive reinforcement before they're willing to listen, while others prefer straightforward, actionable information. In either case, focus on clear facts and observations that outline the problem or demonstrate a pattern of behavior.

Choose the Right Time

Timing is key when you expect a negative reaction. Delaying bad news for too long makes you seem dishonest, and you could completely destroy trust if holding back puts your team in a bad position. At the same time, it's not a good idea to start difficult conversations right at the beginning of the week or during upbeat moments. The last thing employees want to talk about before the holidays are reduced health coverage or poor performance.

Pick an Appropriate Medium

While you might have countless methods of communication available, most of them aren't appropriate for sharing sensitive news. Speaking in person is usually the best way to show empathy, and employees are more likely to question your authenticity when they can't see your face. Talking over the phone is the next best option if you can't arrange a face-to-face meeting right away. Reserve email for situations that are less serious or updating employees after the initial conversation.

Encourage Two-Way Communication

Leaders don't have to carry the burden of problem-solving alone, so make difficult conversations a two-way street. If an internal conflict affects a lot of people, include them in discussions to see the problem from different angles and get diverse feedback. Employees respect leaders who listen to their concerns and answer questions honestly.

Difficult conversations can be productive when everyone is invested in improving the situation. Use effective communication skills to create the right conditions for others to receive your message and learn from it.

Photo courtesy of heyy briannaa at


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