Dr. Nicola McCaffrey

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The Art of Communicating Bad News

Photo by Renata M. Tuntland

Life is punctuated by bad news. In many companies and businesses challenging news is almost a daily occurrence in the form of employee performance feedback or customer satisfaction surveys. Bad news can also come in less frequent but more consequential forms including when companies announce they are downsizing. When organisations and companies communicate bad news they are communicating their core values, therefore the importance of getting it right cannot be overstated. With business change and downsizing now part of the fabric of the workplace, communicating bad news has become an essential skill in business.  Nevertheless, many leaders and managers find it challenging. Some fear the news will be distressing and adversely affect the their reputation or their employee relationships. Others feel inadequately prepared or inexperienced. Some may feel that they do not have the capacity to cope effectively with the emotional demands of the situation and fear being the recipients of anger, retaliation or blame. These challenges are further intensified in fast paced results driven industries, where the emotional content of conversations is an uncomfortable rarity. Ultimately, whilst delivering news about organisational change and redundancies is never easy, if it is delivered in the wrong way it can have a significant negative impact at both an individual and organizational level. Furthermore, the way that you communicate in difficult situations is likely be remembered, either positively or negatively, for a long time to come.

Lessons From Medicine
Much of the research on delivering bad news comes from the field of medicine, where such skills are called upon regularly. Research in this field shows that, from the receiver's perspective, the four most important factors are (in order of importance) the news-giver's attitude, the clarity of the message, privacy, and the person's ability to answer follow up questions. Essentially, they demonstrate that attitude and communication skills have an enormous impact on how the message will be received. Given these findings, how one delivers the bad news may play a key role in shaping how people initially interpret the information and shape their coping process. These findings can also be useful in the world of business as well. If you are taking the time to read this you are likely to have some experience in either being the recipient or the deliverer of bad news in recent times. You may have experienced challenges such as pay freezes, reduced hours or even redundancy. As the deliverer of bad news you are likely to want to know how to best to talk to your team, sustain performance and keep staff motivated. The good news is that there are some very practical steps you can take to help you handle difficult conversations better and, where possible, get the right outcome for yourself, the employee and the organisation.

Preparation
Before you start to actually communicate the news take the time to prepare both yourself and the environment. Create an environment that is conducive to having a difficult conversation. Allocate adequate time for the meeting so that you do not feel that you have to rush through it or that you have no time to discuss questions and concerns at the end. Prevent interruptions. Arrange to have telephone calls held and ensure people understand that you are not to be disturbed. Privacy allows the other person the freedom to respond and cope in the way in which is most comfortable to them. When and where you can ensure that you sit down. Sitting down relaxes people and is also a sign that you are not going anywhere and have the time to talk things through thoroughly. But where you sit is also important. If you are sitting across from someone it can show formality, whilst sitting along side the person can be less threatening. The jury is out on what time of day and week challenging news should best be delivered. But the consensus is that if it is a company wide announcement, such as job losses, the best time to deliver such a message is later in the day and towards the end of the week. Another thing to think about is the medium through which the news should be delivered. In the context of delivering bad news face-to-face communication provides a much richer platform than either phone calls or emails can. There is less likelihood that misunderstandings will take place due to the immediate availability of feedback and social cues. Your tone of voice, body language and facial expressions will help to convey your message and communicate with empathy, something that is lost over the phone and is non-existent with email. As the messenger be prepared for your own emotional reaction. You will likely feel negatively in some sense about having to convey the news. You are also likely to feel a whole host of other emotions from guilt, to frustration and anxiety. It can be helpful to give yourself the time and space to acknowledge and understand your own reactions to this aspect of your job. By taking the time to center and calm yourself before the meeting you will decrease the likelihood that your own emotions will influence the message you have to deliver. It is also important to allow yourself some time after the meeting to process your own emotional reaction. So try not to book in anything following straight on, give yourself some breathing space as you are likely to feel emotionally drained.

Delivery
Delivering bad news without unreasonable delay is critically important. Procrastination can not only build up your own emotional expectations and anxieties, but it can also allow employees to fill the void with rumors, speculation and negativity sowing unease and mistrust amongst staff. Deliver your message in a clear, concise and straightforward manner. Say it and then stop. Avoid delivering all of the information in one single stream of monologue. Pause frequently checking for understanding in your audience. Use silence and body language as a tool to facilitate your discussion. Use open and reflective questions in your communications as it encourages the other person to open up and talk freely about their experiences, reactions and feelings without restrictions being placed on their answers. Open questions typically start with ´who, where, what, why, when or how´. Actively listen to what the person is telling you and reflect it back to them to ensure you are understanding it correctly. Skilled communicators not only use their words but also their use non-verbal behavior to back up and enhance what they are saying. Don’t try to soften the blow, use euphemisms or humour. This may make you feel better, but ultimately it can cause confusion, lessens the impact of the message you are trying to convey and can leave your audience underestimating the full weight of the announcement. Make eye contact with your audience. Maintaining this may feel awkward but it is an important way to establish rapport and trust. One of the key expectations of the audience is that they will be told the truth and all relevant facts will be disclosed. As a leader, how much news is shared and when is always a tricky balancing act, and in challenging times it is critical to get the balance right. In delivering difficult news, when an audience feels lied to or that information is being withheld, this can typically elicit a response of rage and anger. Repeating your message several times in different ways can help it to sink in. Remember to pause and breath in between each delivery. If you want to convey your sadness try not to use the phrase “I am sorry”. This may be misinterpreted as pity, responsibility or aloofness. Try to adjust this phrase slightly to incorporate empathy by saying something such as “I am sorry that I have to tell you this…” The research shows that those who have experienced being made redundant feel more fairly treated and remain more loyal to the company following termination where the message was delivered with dignity and respect. Finally, try not to get lost in the negative and remember to give positive feedback to your audience too. Remind them of their value, skillset and worth which may get lost periodically in the fog of negativity.

Emotional Response
Responding to your audiences emotional reaction is one of the most challenging aspects of delivering bad news effectively. People respond differently to bad news. Some respond emotionally with anger, tears, anxiety or even relief. Others may try to intellectualise what is happening, or refuse to believe what they have been told. Still others still will turn to self-preservation and revert to “fight or flight” mode, attempting to leave the meeting or withdraw entirely into themselves. Outbursts of strong emotion can make us feel uncomfortable, especially when we feel unable or unprepared to cope with them. Give your audience the time and the space to react. Your job at this point is not to clarify and redeliver the message but it respond to your audiences’ reaction and help them work through it. Acknowledge their emotions and offer an empathetic response. Observe what you see in your audience and reflect it back to them. For example the simple observation “you are looking tearful” might open up a pathway for further discussion about how the person is feeling about the news. If they use a particular words or phrase during your discussions use it yourself. Repeating the words that your audience uses shows them that you are actively listening, that you are trying hard to understand how they are feeling and that it is okay to feel that way.

Moving Forward
The period following the delivery of the bad news is critical for readjustment of both the staff that are being made redundant and those that are to stay. The employees who remain will also be faced with “survivor shock” and may experience many of the same emotions as the empolyees who have been made redundant including anger, anxiety, guilt and depression. As a leader it is important to take the time to deal with these emotions, reassuring those remaining in position and demonstrating that those who have left have been provided with as much support as possible. It is important that those colleagues who are to remain at the company witness staff being treated fairly and with dignity, in order to maintain trust and reduce stress. Understandably, many people deliver bad news and then shy away to the comfort and safety of their office. Try where you can to remain visible and supportive. It is important to keep your door open and be available for further discussion and questions. Signpost individuals to the resources that are available to help them. This may be your HR team or other resources or organisations that can offer support. Knowing that there is both help available and where to find it can help to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety staff may be feeling. There also needs to be a greater appreciation of the emotional toll it can take on those at the sharp end of breaking bad news. You also need to build on your own pool of resilience and learn the best ways to deal with the associated stressed and anxiety of delivering bad news and the difficult emotions associates with potentially loosing your colleagues and friends.It is also worth remembering that even if your conversation is private, you are preaching to multiple audiences. Every redundancy situation, no matter how large or small, involves individuals, and lots of them! The news will not only reach those who are being made redundant, but also their friends and family, those who remain in their jobs, as well as stockholders, investors and customers. Remember what people perceive they believe. So give your multiple audiences access to the appropriate and fact based information. Be as open and honest as you can in your conveyance of the message. And be there for the inevitable questions that are to follow.

Ultimately the role of delivering bad news is a challenging and emotionally demanding one for all parties involved. For the messenger who has to deliver news, it is also a thankless one. No matter how well prepared and respectful you are no one will appreciate you for telling them they have lost their job. You will only be able to measure your success in the medium to longer term through reflection, feedback from exited employees on their own transitions, the attainment of the goals that you set out to achieve, and the continued success, motivation and dedication of the workforce that are still in place. Discipline yourself to recognise that in the short term you will face considerable discomfort and adversity, but if you do it right now in the long term yourself and your employees will reap the rewards.