Communicating Negative News in a Positive Light

Posted on February 28, 2016 at 4:05 PM

Nearly everyone has to be the bearer of bad tidings from time to time. Maybe it’s a layoff at the crematory. Perhaps it’s a cutback in hours at the funeral home. Or the termination of a popular associate.

How you communicate bad news will have a significant impact on your firm and its reputation. If you handle communicating one piece of bad news effectively, it may be more impactful than delivering ten bits of good news.

1. Don’t delay. For some reason, bad news always travels faster than good news. Therefore, it’s important to get the word out. After all, when folks sense trouble brewing, they tend to whisper in corners, rather than concentrate on the job they are paid to do.

2. Keep the information flowing. Don’t give your employees the news and not keep them apprised of new developments. It’s one thing to keep harping on the same message (see #10), but if there’s new information – go or bad – this needs to be communicated as well.

3. Be frank. Human nature leads people to try to camouflage bad news with all sorts of soft expressions and double talk. Guess what? Your employees will see right through that stuff. Being candid builds trust and pays out in the long run. Besides, it’s easier to remember what you’ve said when you’ve told the truth in the first place.

4. Be confident. Confidence inspires more confidence. If your employees see you reacting with poise and self-assurance (no matter how much you’re shaking inside), they’ll be less concerned. Your language, your voice, your posture – all of those things must convey the impression that you’re in control and that you’re already moving past the bad news.

5. See it through their eyes. You know the full story behind the bad news and how it will impact the organization. Your local community may not care. Focus your messages on what matters to your employees. Consider how whatever happened may affect their working environment and start your message there.

6. Don’t exaggerate. Odds are pretty good that whatever has happened or is about to happen is not on a par with what they will see on the network news tonight, so don’t react as though it is. If you present the situation as something greater than it really is, your employees will make a big deal of it as well. 

7. Take the blame. It’s easy to shift the guilt to someone else or a situation. People in charge don’t hesitate to take credit for the good things that happen to their companies. They should also be willing to take the blame for the bad ones – even if they really aren’t at fault!

8. Find good news in the bad. Okay, you’ve had to let go a third of your staff because calls are down. Positives may not be easy to find, but there are has to be some good that can come from it. Put the focus there. “Yes, this happened, but here’s what we can learn from it.”

9. Don’t make promises. Things may be bleak now, but don’t let your optimism get the best of you. Sure, you can tell them how the company plan to turn things around or handle the situation, but you should never vow that this will not happen again.

10. Move on. Businesses have a tendency to be so concerned about the bad news that they keep repeating it. Or they leave messages announcing the bad news on signs in their workplaces for weeks. Don’t do that. People, including your employees, have short memories, and if you don’t keep repeating your bad news, they’ll move on to other things.

Take it from Dr. Robert Buckman, a professor at the University of Toronto who's been breaking bad news for years. "Do it poorly," he says, "and people will never forgive you. Do it well, and they'll never forget you."


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