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Seven things you should consider before delivering bad news

Unfortunately there is no foolproof method for delivering bad news but there are certainly helpful behaviours you can adopt to promote a more positive outcome.

Have you ever been left out of the loop?

A former manager of mine once received critical feedback from a board member concerning a cooperative project that I had managed (albeit a successful project). The board deemed the partner organisation a poor fit for an ongoing partnership, so they told my manager they wanted to cancel future collaborations.

Instead of relaying this information to me, my manager hugged the news to herself for several months.

So unwittingly, I proceeded with co-producing another project with the same group. It wasn’t until months later that I discovered what had happened. Or rather, what hadn’t happened. I’d been left out of the loop.

When I asked why this vital information had not been communicated sooner, my manager explained that she had planned to tell me but I’d seemed particularly busy at that time. There were deadlines. The right moment never seemed to present itself. She didn’t want to upset me.

The truth is she was avoiding an uncomfortable situation. Had I heard the feedback sooner I could have made the necessary changes before it all went pear-shaped, saving all concerned a great deal of time and trouble.

Unfortunately there is no foolproof method for delivering bad news but there are certainly helpful behaviours you can adopt to promote a more positive outcome. Here are seven of them

1. Be prompt.If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll be waiting an awfully long time.

2. Be considerate.If the person needs to receive this news, then tell them! Focus on the recipient and the significance of the news for them, not yourself. If it’s affecting your work, it will also help you in the long run. Give consideration to the environment you are communicating within – is it face-to-face, via phone, via email? Choose a medium which makes them feel most comfortable.

3. Be brave.Is it going to be unpleasant?

Gird up your loins: the bad news is that bad news is just another part of the complex tapestry of our working lives. But the good news is, although you can’t forecast or control someone’s response, it is possible to mitigate the breadth of the fallout by considering your delivery. Stay calm and present; align your body by sitting or standing in a balanced position with your feet hip-width apart and feet flat on the floor. Find this state of balance prior to and during the delivery, this will free you up to breathe deeply and stay composed.

4. Be accommodating.Listening is important when delivering critical feedback. Be sure to pause and allow for a response. The recipient is processing this information on the spot, so they may react in an undue fashion. Bad news can do that.

Bad news possesses the power to shock, humiliate, hurt and inflame. It can rattle even the most consummate professional; nothing brings out our humanness more than adversity. So, within reason, if the recipient needs to argue, talk it through, question, shed tears or make an appeal, let them. It’s all part of processing the news and finding a way to move forward.

5. Be specific.Offer the complete facts, don’t withhold the uncomfortable parts or generalise the truth. Providing specific examples can be helpful to reiterate your points and take the person back to the scene of the issue.

6. Be forward-looking.Can you put a positive spin on the news (without sounding like Pollyanna)?

There’s most certainly a species of bad news which you can’t make nice, but perhaps what you can offer is a different lens through which to view it. Are there solutions to the issue or ways to focus on moving forward, leveraging on what has been learnt? Can the bigger picture be examined and perspective re-evaluated? If appropriate, follow up the discussion with an email confirming next steps or actions.

7. Be prepared.Don’t wing it.

In the same way you’d prepare for an important presentation or pitch, put some work into your delivery of the news. Practise what you’re going to say – not just in your head – actually say it aloud. Practice will give you confidence. Experiment with different ways of framing the news, imparting the facts in the best possible light.

A serious disconnect can exist between the message people believe they are communicating and what’s actually coming across. Rehearse delivering the news to a trusted colleague, friend or partner who can provide feedback on your body language and tone. Non-verbal communication may carry as much, if not more, weight than the actual words spoken when it comes to conveying meaning. At NIDA Corporate we often engage a role play actor to play out mock scenes of the real critical conversation to support the rehearsal process.

As with just about everything, the best chance of achieving a favourable outcome is through preparation and practice. So next time you’re charged with delivering the bad news, be bold and be kind but above all, be prepared.

This article was written by NIDA Corporate Course Manager, Belinda Sculley – a NIDA Graduate (2000) and an energetic, collaborative leader who is passionate about delivering engaging, accessible and inclusive learning experiences for a diverse range of audiences.

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