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:
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.
Avoid the tendency to put off delivering bad news. Undue delay generally
makes things worse.
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
Write in a
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
Always show respect. Respecting your reader is a fundamental principle of
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.
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
If there is a silver lining to your bad news, consider mentioning it, but
be careful not to create false expectations.
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
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
Follow up in
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.