Delivering a Difficult Message - Barry Johnson

Most of us, unless we work in the medical profession, are lucky enough never to be in a position in which we have to deliver seriously bad news. A lot of us will, however, have to deliver some kind of difficult or unpleasant message at some point in our working lives. We might have to tell someone that their project is being shelved or that they are being made redundant, or we might have to pass on a piece of negative feedback. Delivering this kind of news is never an enviable task, and unless we’ve received specific training we’re unlikely to know how best to go about it. In this article we’ll take a look at some of the techniques that can help you to deliver a difficult message tactfully and smoothly.

There a lot of barriers to the effective communication of a difficult message. We might fear that the recipient may ‘shoot the messenger’ and take his or her negative emotions out on us; we might be afraid of hurting the recipient’s feelings; we might try to circumvent giving the bad news or go too far the other way and be brutal in our frankness. The best ways to break down these barriers are to make sure that we:
• Are honest with the recipient
• Give the recipient our full attention
• Use clear language
Another important thing to remember is that we can’t always make assumptions on behalf of the recipient. What is bad news to one person could be good news to another – one person told that there are no longer any promotion opportunities in their current role might be furious while another might be relieved! Generally, though, it’s not too hard to anticipate which news will go down badly. Any information that changes the recipient’s perception of the future in a negative way constitutes a difficult message that needs to be delivered sensitively.

Finding the appropriate space in which to deliver your difficult message is important. Nobody wants to be told that they are losing their job in the middle of a busy open-plan office. While there will be limitations in place depending on what space you have available, these are some general guidelines for ensuring that you choose the appropriate environment:
• Use a private space. Receiving a difficult message often produces strong emotions. Give the recipient of your message a private space in which they can express these emotions without having to worry about being scrutinised by people not involved in the conversation.
• Speak one-to-one. Unless it’s necessary to do otherwise for some reason, it’s best to deliver a difficult message one-on-one. This keeps the interaction personal and keeps the recipient from feeling as though they’re facing a firing squad.
• Sit down. Both you and the recipient should be seated. It helps the message to seem more honest and personal if there are no barriers (such as desks) between you.
• Avoid interruptions. Respect the privacy of the conversation. Do not answer phone calls or allow other people to enter the space until you are finished.

Now that you have considered the potential impact of the message and created an appropriate environment in which to deliver it, it’s time to consider how best to go about actually giving it. The steps below are not intended to be followed slavishly – every situation is different and requires you to use your specific knowledge of the person to whom you are delivering your message – but they do provide some excellent guidelines for delivering an unpleasant message as painlessly as possible.
1. Discover the recipient’s perception of the current situation. Before you deliver your message, it helps to know how the recipient feels about the situation as it stands currently. Someone who is certain that they are next in line for a promotion will take the news that a colleague has been chosen much harder than someone who has suspected for some time that others in the team have been performing better than they have, for example. In finding out how the recipient feels, choose your questions so that they lead towards the message you are about to give. In this case, for example, you might ask, “How do you feel you have been performing compared to other members of the team?” or “What have you heard about the promotion situation?” Make sure to correct misinformation (gently!) at this stage.
2. Acknowledge that the message you are about to deliver is difficult. It’s important that the recipient understands the nature of the conversation you are about to have, and that you avoid misleading them or giving them false hope. You don’t want to ‘beat about the bush’, but be careful when being direct that you don’t sound harsh or callous. Try to use plain language and to phrase things positively: “I’d like to explain the decision that we’ve come to” rather than “I have some bad news.”
3. Get the message across clearly and concisely. Be tactful, and make sure that there’s no room for misunderstanding. Remember that part of respecting people is giving them the truth, even when it might be unpleasant. Try to save justifications or long explanations for after the main message has been understood, or it can sound as though you are dissembling or trying to excuse yourself from blame.
4. Take responsibility. You might only be the bearer of bad news, but you should still accept responsibility for the message you are delivering. It can be tempting to hide behind vague, passive-voice language , but it’s almost always best to speak in the first person (using “I” or “we”), especially if you’re delivering a message on behalf of a group or organisation. Try to avoid passing blame and instead treat the situation factually.

Often, people will have an emotional reaction to a difficult message, particularly if they perceive it as strongly affecting their future. This can be one of the reasons why we fear delivering a difficult message: we fear the outburst of emotion it may produce. How you manage the response from the recipient of your message is almost as important as how you deliver your message in the first place. Let’s look at some guidelines for managing the recipient’s response productively.
1. Provide silence. An important part of managing a recipient’s response is to give them time to do just that – respond. When necessary, give them a few minutes to process their reaction before you insist that they speak or continue to speak yourself. Provide time for them to ask questions, perhaps even gently prodding them when you feel that enough time has passed (“Would you like to ask me anything?” “Is there anything you would like me to explain in more detail?”)
2. Reflect feelings – don’t dismiss or trivialise them. How many times have we said to someone who was upset “I know how you feel”? How many times have we felt like choking someone who has done the same thing to us? Telling someone that we know how they feel is one of the most common mistakes that we make when trying to comfort people. Generally, it comes from good intentions – we want to let the person know that we empathise with them, and that their being upset is not unreasonable – but it tends to have a negative effect, often sparking anger or resentment. This is because we don’t know how the other person feels – we can guess, based on observation and our own comparable experiences, but we can’t know. The best thing to do is to state what you observe, rather than what you ‘know’ the person must be feeling. You might say, “I get the impression that this has come as a bit of shock,” or, “I can see that you’re angry about this decision,” for example. Reflect what you observe – don’t claim to know what you can only guess!
3. Managing tears. Sometimes, particularly unpleasant news can provoke tears. If somebody does being to cry, continue to act calmly – fleeing the space or behaving as though tears are an emergency that must be dealt with is unlikely to help matters. Most people are embarrassed if they cry in a work situation and will usually stop as soon as they are able. Give them space to vent their emotions without appearing to run away altogether – look out of the window for a few minutes, perhaps, or offer them a tissue.
4. Managing anger. A difficult message can also make people angry. Anger can be even trickier to manage than tears: if people around us are angry, we can feel threatened – especially if we feel as though some of the anger might be directed at us – and this can in turn trigger our own anger. The best way to avoid unpleasant confrontation is to stick to the facts – as long as you have explained the situation clearly and without apportioning blame, you have done all you can. Use ‘pull’ behaviours (see the ‘Persuasion Styles’ article) to draw out the reasons for the person’s anger. (“Do you feel as though an unfair decision has been made?” “Would you like to add your point of view?”) If you want to express your discomfort at having anger directed at you, make sure to use “I” language rather than “you” language. (“I feel a bit upset at being held responsible” rather than “You can’t hold me responsible.”)

Once your message has been delivered, look back and ask yourself how you think the encounter went. If you used our guidelines and techniques, chances are it wasn’t as painful as you might have expected. Ask yourself two key questions to help yourself improve:
1. What did I do well?
2. What could I do differently next time?
Through practice and this kind of targeted learning, we can improve our ability to deliver difficult messages tactfully and respectfully.

Let’s recap the steps to delivering a difficult message:
1. Create a suitable environment. Choose a private space without interruptions where you can speak to your recipient one-to-one.
2. Deliver the message. Remember to:
• Discover the recipient’s perception of the current situation.
• Acknowledge that the message you are delivering is a difficult one.
• Get the message across clearly and concisely.
• Take responsibility.
3. Manage the response.
• Provide an opportunity to ask questions.
• Reflect feelings – don’t dismiss or trivialise them.
• Manage tears and anger appropriately.
4. Assess the outcome.
• What did you do well?
• What could you do differently next time?