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  Writing for Business and Pleasure
  Copyright by
Stephen Wilbers

How To Say No Diplomatically

Managerial communication

First published October 3, 1997

 “Good managers delivery bad news in a nice way”

by Stephen Wilbers

I like working for myself.

For one thing, I never have to worry about how to deliver bad news. I never have to struggle to find the appropriate tone or just the right words when I have to tell myself "no."

As president of my own company—a consulting firm/publishing house/syndication service—with no paid employees, my communication lines are direct, simple, and efficient.

I haven’t always had it so easy.

When I worked as a university administrator in the 1970s and 1980s, I had to deliver bad news all the time. Now I get to tell other people how to do something I myself never really much cared for. I suspect you don’t like doing it either.

Here’s my advice for how to deliver bad news without being brutal:

Know your audience. You’re more likely to make the right decisions regarding tone and approach if you have a sense of how much your reader has at stake, both professionally and personally.

Decide how to deliver your message. Don’t assume that writing is always the best method of communication. An in-person encounter may be more stressful for you, but it may be less painful for the recipient of your message.

Be timely. Avoid the tendency to put off delivering bad news. Undue delay generally makes things worse.

Take particular care with your tone. The way you say something can be as important as what you say. Remember that negative language is more powerful than positive language.

Write in a personal voice. Resist the temptation to distance yourself from the situation by using bureaucratic language such as "It was decided" or "Our policy necessitates." Most people would rather hear bad news from a genuine person speaking in a natural voice: "I am sorry to inform you that" and "I know you must be disappointed."

Be firm and unambiguous, but not blunt or overly direct. Don’t disguise bad news so that you leave your reader wondering about your meaning, and don’t be so direct that you leave your reader reeling from shock. Be clear but diplomatic.

Show respect for your reader. Always show respect. Respecting your reader is a fundamental principle of effective communication.

Stick to the main issue. Avoid lengthy explanations, excuses, and apologies. If you go on for too long, you risk raising issues that could be used against you.

Consider recognizing that you find the situation difficult or uncomfortable. If you’re having a hard time, why not admit it? Recognizing your own discomfort can lessen the distance between you and your reader.

Link bad news to good news. If there is a silver lining to your bad news, consider mentioning it, but be careful not to create false expectations.

Look for occasions to send "good news" correspondence. If you haven’t been doing this all along, you have missed an important opportunity to create a reservoir of goodwill that can help when things get tough.

Anticipate an angry reaction. Sometimes you can do everything right, and things still go wrong. Recognize boundaries. Both you and your reader are responsible for behaving professionally. You cannot totally control your reader’s reaction.

Follow up in person. You might get an earful, but it’s a nice way to convey your concern for how the recipient of bad news is feeling.

As for organization and structure, I recommend a five-part approach: goodwill greeting or buffer, acknowledgement of reader’s perspective, statement or explanation of the bad news, goodwill closing.

When I deliver bad news to myself, however, I prefer a somewhat more direct, three-part statement/explanation/resolution approach: "Here’s the bad news. That’s the way it is. Get over it."

Works every time.