The Fine Art of Delivering Bad News

Paper Fortune TellerWe all know that bad news is never fun to deliver! That’s why even distinguished leaders, and otherwise successful people, will go to great lengths to avoid doing it.

Do you know those colleagues that tolerate a longstanding, but mediocre, vendor instead of giving the contract to another company? Or maybe another colleague who makes excuses to hold on to an under-performing employee, to simply avoid the task of letting them go? Or have you hung around in a problematic relationship (business or personal) longer than you should have?

We’ve all been there…but we know that these delays only buy us a brief reprieve, but surely don’t improve the situation. In fact, as we hesitate, prevaricate, and beat around the bush, the underlying problem gets worse and the web of complications grows ever more tangled.

That’s why Geoffrey Tumlin,  author of the new book Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life, says we owe it to ourselves to study up on the fine art of delivering bad news.

“If you were hoping for a way around the unpleasant emotions that accompany the delivery of bad news, I’ll have to disappoint you—there isn’t one,” says Tumlin, “But there are some strategies to help you deal with these conversations more promptly and successfully.”

“Delivering bad news is an essential skill, even if it won’t win you any popularity contests,” Tumlin asserts. “Dealing with issues promptly and decisively can save you time, energy, and even money—not to mention all the mental anguish you feel while putting off a difficult conversation.”

Here, Tumlin shares 4 things to keep in mind the next time you need to deliver a message, the other person won’t want to hear:

1. Get to the core of the matter. When you were writing essays in high school, dredging up a thesis statement, may have made you feel like banging your head against your desk. And even now, coming up with the perfect hook to put into a business proposal, for a potential client may take hours of your time. But according to Tumlin, determining your core message will be surprisingly easy when it comes to delivering bad news.

“Your core message is obvious when you’re giving bad news: It’s the thing you don’t want to say,” he points out. “Your core message might be, ‘We’re switching vendors,’ or, ‘We have to let you go,’ or, ‘We should stop seeing each other. The message you’ve been avoiding is the message you need to deliver.”

2. Stick to your guns. Determining your core message was the easy part…but you may not find the remainder of your task as simple. Think back to the tough conversations you’ve had in the past: Have you ever been talked out of your decision by the other person (“But we’ve worked together for fifteen years—you’re not really letting me go, are you…?”) or even changed your mind before delivering the bad news (She’s going to be so upset—I just can’t go through with it…)?

“You’re not doing yourself, or the other person, any favors by putting off a hard conversation” says Tumlin. “Remember, when giving bad news, you’re not negotiating, fact finding, or gathering input. Resist the temptation to get pushed, cajoled, or charmed off your message. Keep your end goal in mind and deliver your less-than-pleasant message here and now. Bad news is like taking off a Band-Aid—it’s best done quickly.”

3. Explain yourself (but not too much). It’s important to make sure that the other party understands your message and doesn’t walk away with the wrong impression. For instance: “We have to let you go because we’re bringing on someone with a different skill set.” “We’re switching vendors because we need different service schedules.” “I think we should stop seeing each other because we’re both miserable.”

“As in these examples, strive to state your core message and explanation—the reason behind the message—in one sentence,” instructs Tumlin. “You can repeat variants of your message and explanation if you want to say more, but don’t add new information or you may encourage a drift away from your core message.”

4. Get out. (Of the conversation, that is.) If you’ve communicated your core message, and the other person understands why you’re delivering this bad news, then it’s acceptable to start thinking about an exit. Naturally, you should address any obvious questions (like “Do we keep making deliveries this week?” “When’s my last day?” “Who keeps the cat?”), but be wary of answering too many speculative or probing questions.

“In this type of conversation, your core message pretty much speaks for itself, and a great deal of unnecessary damage is often done when you overstay a difficult conversation,” comments Tumlin. “You might end up giving up ground you hadn’t intended to, talking about topics that are better left unaddressed, or escalating the conversation to the point of hostility.”

“When it’s time to deliver bad news, don’t get pushed off of your core message,” concludes Tumlin. “It’s a simple formula: Be clear, be concise, and be gone.”



Andréa Venezio , Chief Executive Officer
(972) 232-7700 |

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