The Best Way to Deliver Bad News

By Michael Masterson

Someone once told me that you should always deliver bad news in person. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate what an important rule of business it is.

Do you know someone like this? Very nice to chat with . . . reasonable and fair . . . but you hesitate to open his e-mail or read his memos because they are sometimes nasty, derogatory, and condescending?

I’ve known several people like that. One was a very talented marketing executive who was charming and self-effacing in person – and Attila the Hun-ess on paper. At least a dozen employees walked out on her because of the “suggestions” she made in her memos.

Another, a brilliant and insightful consultant, was given to vicious attacks on colleagues and even clients. For no apparent reason and at no predictable moment, he would send out a virulent message. It was as if he had a writer’s version of Tourette’s syndrome.

Yet another executive I work with is extremely good and protective with his staff but combative and condescending in his e-mail communications with his colleagues. To make matters worse, he almost never ventures out of his offices – which means he is admired and liked by his staff, and isolated and disliked by his colleagues. This has caused him considerable harm in terms of lost deals, joint ventures, etc.

I Am Forever Sticking My Keyboard in My Mouth

As an editor, I have made the mistake of memorializing my criticisms way too often. After an hour with unruly copy, I fall into a kind of evil mood during which each new textual weakness becomes a personal affront – something that begs for retaliation.

Before very long, I’m thinking, “What do you take me for? A doormat for drivel?” And then the red ink starts flowing. Like blood.

Would I act this way if the writer were sitting before me, in the flesh?

I hardly think so.

And don’t think this is a problem only for grumpy old men. It affects everyone . . . even someone as nice and charming as you! Just yesterday, for example, I reviewed a reply to a proposal. The letter, written by one of the nicest executives I know, began by saying something like “We have only one concern about your suggestion that . . . ” and then went on to explain, very clearly, why the proposition would “never be acceptable” and how it “failed to recognize a key element of our business” . . . and so on.

It was clear to me, having the advantage of perspective, that this intentionally benign letter was going to offend the recipient. He was going to read it . . . or that portion of it . . . as intractable and self-aggrandizing. Worse, he was going to see in this very nice executive a new, bad side of her personality that he wouldn’t like and would react to later.

It was a small, unintentional error. She was merely trying to state her point clearly, so there would be no misunderstanding later and no unnecessary discussion.

But the opposite would have happened. There would have been memos back and forth – the deal getting more fragile with each one – and then sore feelings later on.

This is not an isolated incident.

E-Mail Makes It Worse

And now that we are all speaking to one another by e-mail, it is happening every single day.

It is so easy to say the wrong thing when you write it down, because there is a natural temptation to be firm and definitive. And if you are upset with something or objecting  to something, it is easy to take what you consider to be a subtle shot. But the worse thing about written communication is that it is unilateral. You can say whatever you want to (you can’t be interrupted), but you can’t see the other person’s eyes. This is a big disadvantage, especially when you’re talking about something bad, uncomfortable, complicated, etc.

When you deliver difficult news in person, you can read the other person’s body language and make appropriate adjustments in what you’re saying. When you are discussing a tricky proposal or contract, you can stop to clarify misunderstandings or to shed more light on issues of concern.

And that’s not to mention the back-and-forth. Many times, I have gone into a discussion absolutely sure of my point of view – only to be won over to the other person’s position in a matter of minutes. (If you are open-minded and have success as your objective, this happens quite often.) Here’s the way it works: I begin to explain my position. I am interrupted, politely. The other person quickly shows me that I don’t have all the information . . . or points out that I misunderstood something . . . or sometimes simply gives me a better idea. And, presto, the conversation is over! Good show! You are right. Let’s do it that way.

It’s Always Better to Deliver Unpleasant News in Person

Communicating troublesome information in writing is a problem because it can cause misunderstandings. It almost always takes much longer than necessary, and it can sometimes damage a relationship permanently.

So when you can, make an appointment to meet the other person for lunch. Or get up from your chair and take a walk across the office. Sit down and look into his or her eyes. And before you say one word, smile.

When You Cannot Deliver Bad News in Person, Be Very Careful.

  1. First, if I am upset about something, I try NOT to respond to it for at least 24 hours. This is especially important with e-mail, where you can knock off a snotty response as quickly as you can throw a shoe.
  2. Second, if I simply MUST vent, I write my response as quickly as I can, get all the bad stuff out of my system – and then I delete it.
  3. Third, when I really respond, I make sure that what I write advances my objective. That almost always means I stay close to the simple facts and make positive statements. This is especially important when you are in troubled waters.
  4. Finally, I try never to say “never.” It’s better to move to an absolute position gradually. More often than not, you will discover an acceptable compromise along the way.

I haven’t even mentioned another danger of e-mail. Accidentally copying the WRONG person. You get nasty just for a minute . . . not because you really mean it, but because you have to vent . . . and you say something (“She is such a bitch sometimes!”) and guess what! You accidentally send her the message. Or someone else does.

To be safe, assume that all your e-mail will be read by everybody in the Western World.