OMG! Communicating bad news

Our anonymous correspondent has been both the recipient and giver of bad news at work recently. Here she considers how best to share bad news.

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You have stayed up half the night and laboured over the presentation and supporting documents that you are going to use to break unsettling news the next day. Your intentions are to be clear and your aim is to remove uncertainty. Yet, the following day when you deliver the presentation and hand out the documents, the effect on your audience is the exact opposite of what you intended.  What then follows over the next few days and weeks is the unleashing of the entire gamut of human emotions and archetypes, from the 'bury your head in sand because it is not happening to me'; the 'I'm angry at the world' to the mildly philosophical sorts who see it as ‘just more change'.  You, however, in your managerial capacity, have to manage this fall out.  Why does this happen and what can be done to lessen this unintended outcome?

Well firstly, you can start your communications to do with unsettling news from the viewpoint of the recipient. This might seem obvious yet, all too often communications are written to allay the anxieties of the giver of bad news rather than the receiver.  For example, conveying information that seeks to avoid or deflect awkward questions or weak points in the message being delivered. A great maxim is to start with the question " If I were on the receiving end of this news....what would I REALLY want to know"?

Secondly, you can build in reflection points. This simply means building space into the entire communications process to allow the giver and receiver of news to absorb and fully understand the implications of what is contained in the message.  For example, it might actually be a good idea to deliver say, reorganisation information, on a Friday night.  Provided the message is crafted carefully, it allows a natural break in the communications process to enable both giver and receiver to gauge the next steps and possible outcomes. That said a poorly crafted message, delivered on a Friday night, is almost certainly going to create higher anxiety and yet further damage the transition from delivery of the message from the next steps that need to follow it.

Thirdly, remember that people do not exist in a vacuum. They are surrounded by a web of family and social relationships and these have to be acknowledged in crafting any messages that deliver unsettling news.  Again, most people need some reflection space to explore the impact that unsettling news will have outside of their working lives. For some, the effects may well be devastating.  You must avoid at all costs ANYTHING in a communication (and that includes off the cuff remarks) that could be construed as even mildly patronising.  The use of patronising language, or the making of ad-hoc remarks is an unintended but common example of 'anxiety reduction' employed by poorly trained givers of bad news. 

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