How to Communicate Bad News Professionally
“I have good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”
“Oh, give me the bad news first. I want to end on an upbeat note.”
Prepare for it, because when you have bad news to convey in a professional environment, there are ways to do it correctly, and ways to make a mess of it. There are different approaches to this and different techniques, depending on (among other things) the nature of the news, the circumstances in which it is delivered, the gravity of the news, and how the news will be used. The following set of steps will give you some guidelines about how you can create the appropriate result with the appropriate impact.
While reviewing these methods, you will see one that stands heads above the rest from a philosophical point of view, and it is presented last. The first methods you see are here because they are common techniques and you should know how to recognize them. Only the last one has the element of true character. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should ignore the first ones. They do have their place. Just be aware of when they are appropriate and when they are not.
Never, never, never give bad news first!
The Spin Technique
You might see this used in political venues and by corporations broadcasting to the public; no matter how bad things are, everything is presented in positive terms: “I’m pleased to report that at this pace he will finish with school and that he is currently in the upper 98% in his class of only 100 students!” The presentation may appear to be “off the cuff” but in reality it takes careful planning and well-timed delivery. (If you didn’t catch it, the quote above does not say he will graduate, and the upper 98% in a class of 100 means there are only two worse students. The word “only” is added for no reason other than to distract and confuse.)
Know your subject well: You are going to make bad news sound like good news. To do so effectively, you must be knowledgeable of other facts and issues that are close to the situation. If, for example, you are presenting bad news about the deterioration of a forest due to extensive lumber harvesting, you must also know about other environmental impacts (e.g. fauna habitats). In this approach, you will be questioned about ancillary items. Be prepared.
Use statistical references: Using numbers to back your presentation is a powerful tool. The truth is that, if carefully prepared, statistical references (this is different from real statistics that might weigh against you) can be used to back nearly any position. That doesn’t make the position right, but it does add power to your presentation. It’s a Sophist approach (Sophists focus on being able to argue either side with equal effectiveness – usually categorized as individuals without regard for “truth”).
Do not present points that do not support your position: Having said that, it is possible there are points you know will be raised. It may be desirable to diminish those points during your presentation. If that is appropriate, do not disparage or “brush off” the opposition, but rather indicate why those opposing points are either irrelevant or incorrect. Don’t spend a lot of time on this – the more time you take the more solidly the opposing positions will be anchored. Address them and move on. “To address animal protectionist concerns, we have thoroughly studied the impact on local fauna and conclusively proven it to be negligible. We will make our studies available to appropriately qualified reviewers.” End of story – no questions.
Give the appearance of being intellectual: You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to make your point, but it’s important that the audience believes you are well versed on this, and other related subjects. References to obscure but pertinent facts can have a powerful psychological impact. “As most of you know, the six-year-old gymnogyps mates in the early fall and our efforts are clearly sensitive to this important event.”
Be upbeat: There is a line, often crossed, between an upbeat presenter and a snake oil salesman. “Trouble with a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!” Even if you are selling snake oil, you don’t want to come across that way, right now. Remember, this is a bad news presentation.
Be ready for fallout: This technique is almost always transparent on an intellectual level. You are appealing to an immediate emotional reaction. After that reaction fades, the hope is that your sound bites will have enough exposure to carry. You will definitely get commentary on the “glossed over” areas. How you handle that is not within the scope of this document.
Compare and Minimize:
You probably see this most frequently in reviews of activities gone wrong. “Things could have been much worse. Yes, there may have been mistakes made but we had a good plan and executed it perfectly. Remember how bad things were when the same thing happened two years ago? Well, this was much better in every measurable way.” This type of presentation is often used to (try to) conceal fault. It rarely does that, but on a positive note it allows the presenter to admit mistakes and save face at the same time. On the downside, it will appear childish and petulant, if not performed well. "But mom! Nobody did good on the test and Johnny and Mary even got an F and the test next week is the important one!"
Identify common references: You want to find other, similar events that had less favorable outcomes. You will use these as comparisons. Generally speaking, the more the better, but don’t use the entire list – keep some in reserve for backup. Definitely, the worse those other things are, the better the comparison. “The outcome of our efforts was phenomenal when you consider that three of the other teams failed to recover over 30 times as many.”
List every good thing that was done: You’re not going to ignore the bad news, but you want the focus to be on the effort rather than the result. "Despite the hazardous working conditions and the lack of proper funding and the obvious lack of local support those men and women persevered and overcame - they deserve our deepest thanks!"
Focus on the future: Catastrophes are nothing more than opportunities to improve. When you start talking about the future, you must expand on recent efforts. Don’t point out the things that weren’t done, but rather stick to how this lesson showed how the good things that were done can be improved and can be done better and faster. "I'm going to work even harder to make sure the fallout from events like this are minimized, even further!"
The Sandwich Method
Good News – Bad News – Good News
In business environments you will often find that the earlier “slick” presentations just don’t work. This is particularly true when ethics and accountability are held to high standards. This method gives you a way to present bad news in a way that both starts and ends on a positive note without “smoke and mirror” techniques. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to report that our new testing procedures have improved our failure detection by 97% over the past three months. We had one catastrophic failure which, regrettably, resulted in the loss of an expensive robotic arm, but on a more positive note, the arm was scheduled for replacement during the next fiscal year and this event allowed us to advance our retrofit which has further increased productivity.”
Identify the good news: Before the negative event, what was going well? Find something that was on the up swing that is related to the bad news. It’s important to present this first. Do not ever present the bad news first. If you do that, the audience will often focus on that and you will lose their attention – they won’t even hear the good news. Give them something interesting so they’ll want to hear more.
Present the facts: After the initial good news, lead directly into the bad news. Don’t segue with “and now the bad news” or you’ll deflate the positive impact the previous good news brought. When you state the bad news try to be be somewhat monotonic in nature but don’t waiver and don’t be apologetic.
Outline the positive results: You’ve stated exactly what happened. Now, most importantly, what did you learn from it? Bad things do happen; accept it. But you can use those events to improve. This is most commonly called a post-mortem analysis. Done properly, such an analysis can lead to dramatic improvements. When you present your summary of the post-mortem, you will be telling the audience how this negative event poses a future benefit.
Avoid excuses: Yes, it happened. No, it wasn’t a good thing. No, you’re not trying to dodge responsibility. Your objective is to state the news and nothing but the news. You’re simply going to put it in such a way that the audience recognizes you as a person of integrity. When done properly it’s likely you’ll get a round of applause by using this method.
Avoid finger-pointing: Instead of a blame fixer, be a problem fixer. Don't try to assign the bad news to someone - not even to yourself. Quibbling over who did what to whom behind which barn isn't going to solve anything. We were having a good day, something bad happened, here's what we're doing about it.
Whenever possible, use the Sandwich Method. It shows maturity and character. The other methods are highly specialized and require very distinct circumstances and very experienced presenters.
Rehearse! Don’t try to do any of these without practice. If you have the opportunity to work with friends or associates first, that’s a very good way to learn of potential objections or to judge audience reactions.
In the Spin Method, you need to be slick and talk fast. If you’re asked a follow-up question, nod a lot during the question as though you already know the answer. Always remember you can avoid answering follow-up questions by referring to future release of information to “appropriately qualified reviewers.” See How to Spin
Bad News for a more detailed presentation.
In the Compare and Minimize Method, it is sometimes helpful to talk about the comparison bad news in a sympathetic way. Inducing sympathy in the audience toward other bad news will often carry across to yours.
There is one method not mentioned here that is obvious by its absence. This is the “factual presentation.” It’s omitted because in the environment where it’s used, there really isn’t any such thing as bad news. In that scenario (lab experiments, for example) there is only supporting data and non-supporting data. Reporting that a wheel failed during a test is not bad news – it’s simply data.
The Sandwich Method is a very good way to offer constructive criticism (coaching) to modify behavior (with employees, friends, children, spouses). See How to Give a Feedback Sandwich for additional uses and a different presentation of this technique.
Warnings: Never give the bad news first! Your audience will lose interest in everything else you’re going to say. They won’t even hear the good news.
Once you start down a path, it is very difficult to reverse course. If you choose the Spin Method, for example, you will find it difficult to switch to one of the others.
The worst possible way to present bad news is to lie about it. Lying is out of the scope of this document, but there are articles you can reference if you truly believe that is your only option.
Always show respect for those who are affected by bad news.
How to Give a Feedback Sandwich
"If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times..."
Giving critical feedback to someone in order change behavior is a delicate process. It is very important to assure that you approach the task with sensitivity to the person's feelings to avoid the common problem of a very defensive reaction.
If it's done properly, however, the recipient will take the feedback positively and good results will follow, naturally! One very effective way to do this is to "sandwich" the critique inside other, positive statements. The following steps outline an effective way of doing just that whether in business, with friends or parent to child.
 StepsCompliment – Coach – Encourage
"You really did an excellent job with that 'Treating People Fairly' essay - everybody has been very impressed! In the future, it would be better to avoid naming people that haven't accepted all the methods you outline. It's great that you put so much thought into this and a lot of people are going to benefit from it!"
Prepare: Do not go into the situation without careful forethought and planning. A good outline is a tool for success. Without one, it is easy to get off track and you can lose control of the conversation. Know exactly what you're going to say and how you're going to say it.
Compliment - Identify the positive: Find something significant that the individual did. This needs to be related to the coaching you're going to give, and needs to be reasonably close in time. If, for example, all the white clothes came out of the washer pink because a red shirt was thrown in, well... "I really appreciate you helping with the laundry!" might be a way to start the conversation.
Coach - Present the facts: Now, you have their attention and they are in a receptive frame of mind. Pause just a second to let that feeling solidify, then lead directly into the coaching. Avoid using the word "but" as in "but next time" since that can create the defensive atmosphere that you're trying to avoid. Be direct and firm, but never angry and never demeaning. Communication is a science and if you want positive results, you have to be very... scientific. "I'm going to work with you on how to sort clothes so we don't end up with pink socks again."
Encourage - Give a bright outlook: When you gave the coaching, you inevitably caused some mental deflation in the person. Do not leave that in place; it has to be removed quickly, but correctly. Project a positive outcome of future efforts. The natural conclusion is that there was a good base to start (the initial praise), there are ways to improve that base (coaching), and combining those will produce even better results. "It's great to have another set of helping hands and everybody will have more time for those after-dinner Wii battles!"
Follow Up Later: Don't wait until after the next issue arises to monitor the behavior change; be helpfully inquisitive and continue promoting change. The objective is to anchor the positive nature of the change in the mind of the individual. If you just let things drop, your coaching might be forgotten. Without consistent reinforcement, a process called "extinction" sets in: The desired behaviorial change will not materialize.
Compliment: Thanks for patrolling recent changes. I'm impressed you patrolled 400 edits today and rolled back a lot of vandalism.
Coach: I did want to coach you that we shouldn't NFD an article on how to rock climb for the reason of dangerous. The NFD-Dangerous reason is really reserved for things that are both irrational and dangerous. We generally use it to delete things that are borderline joke articles / truly crazy ideas like "How to Drive Blindfolded in Heavy Traffic" We don't want to delete all topics that are merely dangerous, but still rational. Otherwise we wouldn't have articles on topics like rock climbing, SCUBA diving, skydiving, etc.
Encourage: Thanks again for patrolling RC. You did a great job and have really improved the quality of the information on wikiHow. I sure hope you keep up the good editing here.
 TipsStay Positive: If you go into this with a positive attitude the exercise will have a positive outcome. Likewise, a negative attitude on your part will guarantee a futile result.
Practice: It's a good idea to practice in front of a mirror - or better yet in front of another person - before you do this. You want the presentation to be smooth with a good flow.
Coach Regularly: If you make this a normal routine, you will get better and the individuals you are coaching will become less apprehensive about it. Don't become obsessive about it, though, or you will lose both credibility and impact.
 Warnings: Avoid blame: What you're doing is pointing out something that needs to change. How you got here isn't important. What's important is where you are now, where you're going, and how you'll get there. As a whole, the conversation must be positive. Yes, there will be a negative part, but the two positives will outweigh that. Leave your listener with an upbeat attitude and you'll get the results you want.
Don't be condescending: You are trying to change behavior. Don't take an overtly superior attitude; don't be indignant; don't be pretentious... that is guaranteed to damage the communications effort.