THE DELICATE ART OF GIVING BAD NEWS

This is post is going to be concerned with, what John Nettles’ character described in a recent edition of Midsomer Murders as, ‘the delicate art of delivering bad news’   We covered giving feedback in a recent post and this is closely related, so you may wish to read that as well.

On most occasions when you give feedback your hearer is expecting a message of some kind – good or bad.  Where as bad news often comes as a shock! Even if is it expected in principle – the reality and the details may be hard to bear!  There is, and should be,  a lot more  to it than just saying or writing the words!  If you want to ensure there is the best possible out come then you will need to prepare and to follow-up, as well as delivering the message well!   The advice given here is based on that usually given to medical students in the UK as part of their training.  But it applies equally well if you are giving seriously bad news at work,  for example,  about redundancy!

Preparing

Preparing to give bad news is almost as important as actually giving it. For instance, where are you going to  have the meeting?  Where you’ll sit or stand in relation to the hearer and even what you will wear is important if the news is seriously bad.  If you are going to write, then you need to think about the medium – this is not the time for a very brief email!

When choosing a place, you should make sure it’s quiet with little or no chance of interruption. Make sure it’s some place you can make the person feel as comfortable as possible.  If possible, sit close to the person at eye-level with no barrier between you.  Studies have shown that many people feel isolated and alone if you sit behind a desk or some other barrier. They may also perceive you as cold and uncaring if you sit too far away.  Knowing how you should comfort really must come from what you know about the person!  For instance,  if you’ve found they don’t like people sitting too close this may make them feel uncomfortable rather than at ease.

One thing that is important is for you to be very clear about the facts, the explanation behind a decision, for example, before you begin.  You also need to know the options open to the person.  In case of redundancy, what support can the person expect from HR?  In this example, identify an HR contact that you can pass onto the individual?   The worst thing you can do when giving bad new is to give the individual the impression that you didn’t even care enough to find out the facts.  Know your material and don’t work from notes,  if you can, on this occasion!  Notes can provide a barrier and you will not be able to fully judge their reactions so well!

Work out what your own feelings are about the situation and how to deal with them before the meeting.  You want the person to know you are sorry but it isn’t fair to overwhelm them with your own grief!

Giving the news

Watching the person’s reaction and listening are very important while actually while giving bad news. Just from body language or the extent of eye contact, you can tell if they understand and accept what you’re saying and what emotions they are experiencing.   Be prepared for anger or despair with serious news.    It is really important to remember to speak clearly and slowly.  Don’t jump straight into the news – go through the usual courtesies at the beginning of the meeting.  In a letter warn them that you have bad news and say that you are sorry about it!

Throughout the meeting, ask them if they have any questions and if they understand what you’re telling them.    Your own feelings should be dealt with before the meeting and should not weigh on them!

Following-up

After you’ve given the bad news, don’t end the meeting abruptly. Ask again for questions or if they need any information repeated. Offer additional sources of information like pamphlets or the names of support groups if they are available. Make sure to pass on the name and  contact details for HR.

Most of us feel somewhat lost after receiving very bad news.  One way to deal with this is to schedule  another meeting shortly afterwards or to ring them to discuss how they are going to manage the time ahead.  At the very least you will want to make sure  they processed what you told them. Then you may want to allow them some time alone!. Just don’t rush them out of your office or wherever the meeting is taking place.  Take time to be kind – compassion costs us nothing!

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