Delivering Bad News – 5 Steps to Soften the Blow

How do I deliver bad news or feedback?


All business owners need to deliver bad news. You may need to give a reprimand, remove a contributor from a moderated discussion group, remind a staff member about policies and procedures, say ‘no’ to a prospective client, inform companies about the outcome of a tender, inform job applicants that they weren’t successful, or any number of potentially bad news messages.

Bad news exists on a continuum: it varies in type from the trivial to the traumatic, in extent from the individual to the community, and in impact from the mildly uncomfortable to the life changing.

Bad news is not an absolute: it’s interpreted differently by different people and at different times. Some days, the bad news just seems to pile up and, no matter what news you receive, you’re likely to see it as worse than it really is.

It’s the individual aspect of interpretation that’s most important when you’re delivering bad news: remember that the recipient is not inside your head and does not know what you’re thinking. The recipient has little idea of the thought process and frustration that’s brought you to the point of delivering the bad news. This means that your bad news will nearly always be received in a context that’s different from the one you anticipated. It also means that the chances of misunderstanding are very high.

These hints are designed for small business owners who have to deliver bad news in writing. I’ll use one example throughout: imagine that you need to deliver a reprimand to someone who has posted inappropriate content on a group discussion site (this is a seemingly trivial situation that has the potential to cause some high drama).

Here are our 5 top tips for delivering bad news in writing.

  1. Focus on the relationship first, ahead of this incident

Before you begin to craft a bad news message, think about the relationship you have with the recipient and the relationship you want to have in the long term. If you plan to have an ongoing business relationship, or if there’s any chance you will encounter the recipient in the future, then put the ongoing relationship ahead of this bad news incident. I’m not suggesting that the bad news should be hidden or ignored, just that it needs to be delivered in a way that maintains, or preferably improves, your relationship.

As you craft your bad news message, think carefully about your stance as a writer and how you want to come across to the recipient. If you want to be seen as friendly, supportive and thoughtful, then write in a way that demonstrates those attributes.

Remember that bad news is never neutral. Your recipient will interpret the message as being more harsh and more judgemental than you intend it to be. There’s also a reasonable chance that the recipient will see your comments as a personal attack. So if you write: ‘your comments were inappropriate for our discussion group’, your recipient is likely to read: ‘they don’t like me/my content’ or ‘they’re trying to rubbish what I’m doing’. The recipient may also blame you for the situation: ‘that person never understands what I mean’ or ‘that person is soooo touchy’.

If the relationship is important, do what you can to repair it immediately after the bad news has been delivered. It may make sense to make some gesture of support to the recipient. In our example, you could personally invite the participant to contribute content to the discussion board, on a topic that’s clearly relevant.

  1. Take ownership of the content

When you write your bad news message, write it in a way that shows your relationship to the content and the decision. It’s tempting to deliver bad news in what’s called ‘passive voice’, with the person who made the decision removed from the message. Writing this way may seem to soften the bad news but, by removing the person who made the decision, you make it easier for the recipient to become frustrated and angry. So avoid writing: ‘it was seen that the nature of the posts was not inclusive to all members’. Instead, write: ‘I was concerned that your posts were not inclusive of all members’.

In taking ownership of the content, be as concrete and specific as possible. The more specific you are, the more likely your recipient is to understand the thinking behind your news. The recipient may read your message and understand the specifics of what has happened, instead of becoming angry, stewing over multiple ‘but’ responses, and possibly making the situation worse. In our example, don’t be tempted to write: ‘I was concerned that your posts were not inclusive of all members’. Instead, write: ‘I felt that your post of 10 June excluded the women in our group and your comments on 13 June were outside of the specific business interests of our members’.

You’ll notice that I’m suggesting the bad news should be presented as ‘I felt that …’ rather than ‘Your comments were …’. There’s a reason for this: interpretation is a personal thing, and your interpretation will be different from that of other readers. When your bad news involves some type of judgement, your message will be more believable and less upsetting if you present it as your personal reaction (or your organisation’s reaction) rather than as an external reality. When you’re dealing with judgements, external realities don’t exist.

  1. Don’t leave room for a ‘but’ response, and don’t escalate the situation with your reply

When you have to deliver bad news, it’s best to deliver the news once and then not engage in further discussion. If you state the bad news clearly, give a sound reason, propose a solution or outcome, and write in a way that preserves the relationship, then you’ve done what you can to deliver the news in a way that allows you to move on to other things. When you fail on any of these aspects, your recipient may react with anger and/or frustration (remember that the failure exists in the mind of the recipient, not in your mind).

If your recipient is angry or frustrated, they may come back to you with an argument or a ‘but’ response. For example, you may receive: ‘I’d be interested to know which post of mine created the problem’ (this is a ‘but’ response written in a way that’s designed to understand the situation). Or you may receive: ‘I’ve never written a post that is outside this group’s guidelines’ (this is an argument attempting to persuade you that your decision was wrong, but notice that it lacks any concrete evidence).

If you receive an argument or a ‘but’ response, try to maintain your focus and sense of perspective. Just like the recipient, you’re likely to see this message as a personal attack rather than an objective statement or query. Try to reply in a way that is on topic and emotionally neutral. Don’t be tempted to strongly justify your original decision. If necessary, re-state the decision/bad news in a way that is clear and simple.

When you respond, never get defensive about the person’s query or respond in a way that seeks to justify your decision. In addition, don’t try to encourage the recipient to feel sorry for you. Don’t write: ‘In a perfect world we would have better systems … we’re doing the best we can’. Instead, write: ‘As moderator, it’s my job to monitor all the posts and ensure everyone follows the group’s guidelines. I invite you to post regularly on topics that are within our guidelines. If you’re unsure whether your comment is appropriate, just get in touch with me and check before you post’.

Remember, if the recipient responds to you with an argument or a ‘but’, you don’t have to reply. If replying is not essential for some business reason, and if replying is never going to improve the relationship, just let it go. You don’t need to have the last word.

  1. Make sure the recipient knows of your decision

When you make a decision that impacts on the recipient, make sure they’re aware of your decision before they suspect it. They need to hear the news from you, not from someone else. And they need to know the news before they make themselves feel or look silly by trying to operate on the assumption of business as usual. Remember that being reprimanded and receiving bad news always hurts; you can make the hurt slightly less severe by delivering it personally and quickly.

In our discussion group example, it’s best to send the recipient an individual note, particularly if you plan to block the person from the discussion group. Don’t leave them to wonder why they’re suddenly not receiving messages or are unable to post to the group. There can be no circumstances in which your workload is so large that you can’t inform the individual: if you’ve got time to block them from the group, you’ve got time to send a message, even if it’s simply a one-sentence template message.

In a situation where you’re simply irritated by some bad behaviour and you don’t want to single out one individual, write a message to the entire group clearly identifying what behaviour is not appropriate and why … this means that you’re avoiding delivering your bad news to the individual, but at least you’re communicating the same message to everyone.

  1. Wait before you send

Whenever you need to deliver bad news, allow plenty of time to craft the message and think about its impact. Never, never send a message in anger. If you’re sending the message by email, never press ‘send’ immediately after you’ve finished writing.

If you need to deliver bad news, you need to wait for time to pass between writing and sending. If possible, write the message one day and send it the next. Re-read with fresh eyes before sending and try hard to imagine the experience of the recipient. In the waiting time between writing and sending, try not to dwell on this situation. If you can think about other things, you’ll be able to focus with a clear mind when you return.

Before you send, make a final check that there’s nothing in your message that might unintentionally escalate the situation. Check that your facts are correct and you’re attributing comments/actions to the right person. Check that you’ve got little details right (like dates and people’s names). Check that you’re not breaking the conventions of your medium (for example, don’t write an email in red or all capitals, and don’t forget to include a salutation like ‘Dear Sally’ at the beginning).

In the end, you need to send your bad news message, take a deep breath, and wait for the response, knowing that you’ve done what you can to make sure it’s clear, fair, concrete and friendly.