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How do I Deliver Really Bad News?

When the bad news will be a shock to the person or persons you have to tell, you may want to forewarn them. Start by saying, "I’m going to have to give you some bad news." Such an outright statement lets people prepare emotionally for the upset. Follow that up with the bad news and the "why" behind the bad news, if it will help the listeners to understand the news better. Demonstrate your courage by getting to the facts.

If appropriate, show up at the meeting with specific facts, numbers, and results in black and white, to better inform about the situation. This tactic will distance you from the situation, minimizing personal resentment against you. If the individual or group doubts your bad news, welcome their comments about doing their own investigation. In fact, tell them you hope they are right and you are wrong; if your information comes into question, encourage them to seek other expert opinions.

If there is any kernel of good in the bad news, mention it. If a project has been killed, suggest that there may be information or insights that can be salvaged from the experience. If there will be downsizing, tell the group that there are no plans for further downsizing—if that is the reality.

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Let’s assume that you can’t be present when the news is delivered. One CEO, for instance, found himself in Asia when the events of 9/11 destroyed his New York City headquarters located in the Twin Towers. Under the circumstances, for the first day or so, all communications from him came via tape and writing. As soon as he returned, however, he quickly met with his management team and later his employees to familiarize them with steps the company would be taking to help victims and their families of the terrorist attack.

His presence did nothing to soften the information he had to share, given the nature of the information. But sometimes a person’s presence can build rapport that can ease the impact of the bad news. When putting your message in writing, you have to attempt to establish that rapport by bringing up the topic in a positive way.