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Can we talk?

Four tips for delivering bad news from the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life

by Geoffrey Tumlin

Geoffrey TumlinBad news is no fun to deliver. That’s why even distinguished leaders and otherwise successful people will go to great lengths to avoid doing it. For example, you might tolerate a longstanding, but mediocre, vendor instead of giving the contract to another company. Or maybe you make excuses to hold on to an underperforming employee. 

These delays buy us a reprieve, but they surely don’t improve the situation. In fact, as we hesitate, prevaricate, and beat around the bush, the underlying problem gets worse and the web of complications grows ever more tangled. That’s why we owe it to ourselves to study up on the fine art of delivering bad news.

If you were hoping for a way around the unpleasant emotions that accompany the delivery of bad news, there isn’t one. But there are some strategies to help you deal with these conversations more promptly and successfully.

That’s where my book, Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life comes in. Full of counterintuitive yet concrete advice, it draws on my experience as a communication consultant to show readers how to improve conversations, develop productive communication habits, build stronger relationships, and use our powerful digital devices to their full advantage.

Here are four things to keep in mind the next time you need to deliver a message the other person won’t want to hear:

1) Get to the core of the matter. When you were writing essays in high school, dredging up a thesis statement may have made you feel like banging your head against your desk. Even now, coming up with the perfect hook to put into a business proposal for a potential client can take hours of your time. But determining your core message will be surprisingly easy when it comes to delivering bad news.

Your core message is obvious when you’re giving bad news: It’s the thing you don’t want to say. Your core message might be, "We’re switching vendors," or, "We have to let you go." The message you’ve been avoiding is the message you need to deliver.

2) Stick to your guns. Determining your core message was the easy part. You may not find the remainder of your task as simple. Think back to the tough conversations you’ve had in the past: Have you ever been talked out of your decision by the other person (“But we’ve worked together for fifteen years—you’re not really letting me go, are you?”) or even changed your mind before delivering the bad news (She’s going to be so upset—I just can’t go through with it.)?

You don’t do yourself or the other person any favors by putting off a hard conversation. Remember, when giving bad news, you’re not negotiating, fact finding, or gathering input. Resist the temptation to get pushed, cajoled, or charmed off your message. Keep your end goal in mind and deliver your less-than-pleasant message here and now. Bad news is like taking off a Band-Aid—it’s best done quickly.

3) Explain yourself (but not too much). It’s important to make sure that the other party understands your bad news message and doesn’t walk away with the wrong impression. For instance: “We have to let you go because we’re bringing on someone with a different skill set.” “We’re switching vendors because we need different service schedules.” 

As in these examples, strive to state your core message and explanation—the reason behind the message—in one sentence. You can repeat variants of your message and explanation if you want to say more, but don’t add new information or you may encourage a drift away from your core message.

4) Get out. (Of the conversation, that is.) If you’ve communicated your core message, and the other person understands, it’s probably acceptable to start thinking about an exit. Naturally, you should address any obvious questions (like “Do we keep making deliveries this week?” “When’s my last day?”), but be wary of answering too many speculative or probing questions.

In this type of conversation, your core message pretty much speaks for itself, and a great deal of unnecessary damage is often done when you overstay a difficult conversation. You might end up giving up ground you hadn’t intended to, talking about topics that are better left unaddressed, or escalating the conversation to the point of hostility.

When it’s time to deliver bad news, don’t get pushed off of your core message. It’s a simple formula: Be clear, be concise, and be gone.

Geoffrey Tumlin is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill, August 2013, ISBN: 978-0-0718130-4-4, $20.00, www.tumlin.com.

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