Imagine telling your client at 7am that the keynote speaker is stuck at customs. Picture breaking to your team that some of them will be let go. Delivering bad news is tough. Here are some lessons I’ve learnt on doing it well:
1. Get to the point.
Wine and cheese improve with time – everything else festers.
A friend once left me a voicemail that dragged on for two minutes. She spent the first 90 seconds wishing me well and hoping that my roses were blooming. Finally, she stammered out that she would have to cancel our dinner plans because of work.
Dragging out the delivery of bad news prolongs awkwardness and frustration. Give the bad news and move on to the fixes.
2. Think from the other person’s perspective
We all put our own priorities first. Your client does as well.
My last client was adamant about hiring a certain speaker for the keynote address. I was hesitant – I knew that the speaker was horribly unpleasant to work with. However, my client understandably wanted who she thought was the best.
Instead of telling my client how hard it would be to work with that speaker – more of my problem than my client’s – I brought up another point. I noted that the speaker had a record of dropping engagements and disappointing attendees. We engaged another speaker.
The messenger only gets shot if the bad news is unexpected. Bad news in bite-sized pieces is easier to swallow.
No one benefits from a shock. Give your team members suggestions for improving rather than let them go without warning. Tell the caterers if you suspect attendance might drop. Warn your client how the weather could mean a change in plans.
More notice means more time to find solutions.
4. Offer solutions
Think about it this way: you aren’t presenting problems – you’re giving answers. Bad news is only truly bad if there aren’t solutions. Switching the focus from the issue to the response puts your team in problem-solving mode.
5. Follow up
You’ve been the calm eye of the storm and offered viable solutions. Now it’s time to follow up. Are the solutions you offered fixing the problem? What improvements can you make? Think back to your time as a kid playing whack-a-mole – issues can pop up. A thorough follow-up demonstrates your competence.
Here’s a secret: there is no such thing as bad news. There is only news that requires thought, planning, and a large amount of empathy to deliver well. Now go work on making some good news.