How to Break Bad News in the Workplace
Seven steps for planning, approaching and delivering bad news in the workplace
We’ve all been there: You are about to say something that is going to make the other person feel terrible. You see your conversation partners expression turn to shock, and then sadness. You try to make them feel better, but it just feels like you are making things worse. Most of us have had an experience like that in our lives, especially when breaking bad news.
Breaking bad news. Illustration by Author
In work and life, you may be required to give some information which will negatively impact on somebodies life. In the workplace, examples can include giving negative feedback, telling somebody you can’t pay them as much, or that you need to lay them off.
We are defined by how we handle these conversations, and when performed poorly, they risk doing more harm than good. Even the most professional of bad-news givers like physicians struggle with this.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s not your fault. There is a way to break bad news without creating emotional scar tissue. Most people are never lucky enough to receive training on how to perform this tricky skill.
In this post, you will learn how to:
- How to plan and structure a bad news conversation flow
- How to communicates effectively without being overwhelming
- Why your approach should be professional but empathetic
- How to work through emotions and plan for resolution
As a general disclaimer, techniques that leverage emotional intelligence can be easily abused and need to be applied sincerely. Help make the world a better place — practice beneficence, not maleficence.
I really need to know now — just tell me
For those of you breaking bad news in a few minutes with no time to prepare, the following flowchart is for you. Above all else, just remember to know what topics you need to cover and be empathetic to the level of information required and any questions asked.
Breaking Bad News Flow. Illustration by Author
The Seven Steps I use for breaking bad news
For those of you willing to go a little deeper and build this conversation muscle, the following steps are for you.
Breaking Bad News Brain. Illustration by Author
Step 1: Be prepared or prepare to fail
Unlike most discussions, a bad new conversation has high stakes. Any mistakes carry higher risks for emotionally and psychologically harming someone.
Here are the things you need to think about before having the discussion:
- Identify what information needs to be covered
- Set enough time aside for the conversation so that you won’t be disturbed
- Pick a location that ensures privacy
- Decide if anyone else needs to be in attendance
- How well do you know this person? Think about the best way to introduce yourself and make opening statements
Step 2: How ready are they for bad news?
After making your introductions, you want to aim to understand how much the recipient knows already.
Start by introducing the topic of the bad news and follow with an open-ended question. Examples include:
- “How do you feel your performance has been in the last few months?”
- “Are you aware of the organisational changes in the company?”
- “We want to talk about topic X. What do you know about it?”
- “How does topic X make you feel?”
Take note of how they respond and try to read between the lines:
- What was their tone of voice?
- What language was used or avoided?
- What was their general attitude like?
You can use this to help you gauge preparedness for bad news and tailor your response later.
Be respectful if you find the recipient is not interested in exploring their views on the topic. This usually happens if they know bad news is coming. In this situation, aim to find out what they would like to get out of the conversation.
Step 3: Give A Warning Shot
Warning Shot. Illustration by Author
One of the worst things you could do is surprise a person with bad news especially if they think everything is fine. Its cruel, erodes trust and is entirely preventable.
The warning shot gives the recipient time to mentally adjust and prepare for taking in information. You can deliver this by simply stating bad news is coming:
- “I’m afraid that I have some bad news”
- “Well, the situation does appear to be more serious than that. I have some bad news to discuss with you.”
And now pause. Let that information sink in. Like before, take note of body language and any verbal responses. If there is silence, be comfortable with it for a few seconds, and prepare for the next step.
Step 4: How much would they like to know?
Before providing further information, it’s worth asking how much information the recipient actually wants to know. Unless you are a mind reader, chances are you don’t know, and it’s not smart to assume. After all, it’s their bad news day, not yours.
Think about it as if you were in their shoes. Would you want to know all the details of how this happened? Do you need some time to process this information? Perhaps you just want to get to the practical next steps and not bogged down in the ‘why this happened’.
Aim to ask open questions like:
- “Would you like me to tell you the details of the news?”
- “Are you the kind of person who likes to know exactly what’s going on?”
Try to avoid leading (closed) questions which can shut down conversations like:
- “You don’t want to be bothered with the details, do you?”
Listening to their response will help guide you when giving more information next.
Step 5: Giving Knowledge and Information
Topics. Illustration by Author
Having now got a feel of what is essential to discuss, refer back to your original list of topics. Think about which points are most relevant and how much detail you actually need to disclose.
Approach this from their starting point. What state of mind are they in right now? Progress in providing information using the following strategies:
- Use non-technical and straightforward words
- Reinforce any correctly stated information
- If appropriate, use similar language as they have
- Give information in small chunks
- Check in to make sure you are explaining things clearly — “Could you just tell me the general drift of what I have been saying? I want to make sure I have explained things clearly.”
Most people receiving bad news are understandably upset. It’s important to remember that in this state it’s unlikely they are taking in any information you are saying. Strategies that can help here are:
- Offering to clarify any information
- Inviting questions
- Repeating important points
- Listening to concerns
- Looking for buried questions in responses
Step 6: How Are They Feeling?
Feeling. Illustration by Author
A person's response can vary from silence to distress, denial, crying and even anger. It’s tempting to provide calming words or try to comfort, but don’t fall into the trap of giving false hope. Sometimes we inadvertently do this help make ourselves feel less uncomfortable, but it risks doing long-term harm.
You can be most helpful by just being very human about the situation:
- Acknowledge the feelings the person is going through, that you understand this is very upsetting
- Respond empathetically
- Ask them what they are thinking or feeling
- Don’t be afraid to ask if you are unclear what the person is expressing
If there is a natural pause, and the response is silence, don’t worry. We humans are very uncomfortable with silence and feel tempted to rush in with words, but silence is essential. Allow up to seven seconds to allow the recipient time to express any feelings and worries — watch and listen.
Step 7: Strategy & Summary
Before ending the conversation, it’s essential to acknowledge their biggest anxieties and explain what the next steps look like. By providing a plan of action, recipients are less likely to get anxious and panic.
Try to do the following:
- Highlight any significant issues from the recipient’s problem list
- Identify that you understand their specific concerns
- Invite questions and reassure them that they can come back later with questions later — maybe even set up another meeting
End the conversation by summarising the discussion and if available, providing resources of support.
Secret Bonus Step 8: Check in with yourself
Emotional Recovery. Illustration by Author
Having these conversations can be emotionally draining and produce a lot of personal guilt. It’s crucial to regularly check-in with yourself afterwards and take the time to replenish your emotional empathy.
- How are you feeling right now?
- Do you regret anything you said or how you said it?
- Is there anything you missed?
- Is there anything you need to follow up?
Techniques like mindfulness and journaling can help, but I find just talking about it with friends and colleagues is most therapeutic.
Breaking bad news is really hard, but now you have the tools to become so much better.
Smarter, empathetic discussions have the power to improve the lives of those around you. Many of the techniques are transferable, and I have found practising them has not only enhanced my experiences at work but also helped my personal life.
So go out there and practice what resonated with you here. Help build a better world while also helping yourself.
“No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” Sophocles, Antigone