How to Deliver Tough Messages


All leaders have to deliver bad news or have difficult conversations. Sometimes it's in a one-on-one situation, such as telling a team member he was turned down for a promotion or will not be involved in a project he wanted to be part of. And sometimes you have to be the bearer of bad news — like restructuring, budget cuts, or layoffs — to a group.

Either way, these are stressful situations that will put your executive presence to the test. You can use the strategies below to avoid some common stumbling blocks that leaders face when delivering bad news.

Get Your Own Feelings Out of the Way

Before you share bad news, take a little time to check in with yourself. What are your feelings about the news itself? What impacts do you expect it to have? And how do you feel about delivering the news to others?

It's natural if you're feeling anxious. But you'll need to process this anxiety in order to communicate effectively.

If you're feeling frustrated or down yourself, you risk being overly negative when you share the news. Think about how you can reframe the situation. You don't have to pretend that bad news is good news. (That isn't helpful, either – which we'll talk more about below.) But you can present things in a more neutral, factual way that explains the business rationale behind the decision. That's ultimately more beneficial to your listeners.

It might help to consider things in the context of the long term or big picture to balance out any short-term discomfort. For example, if the raise you requested for one of your direct reports gets turned down, remember that while both of you are disappointed now, there will be future opportunities you can help her be ready for. (By the way, avoid distancing yourself from the bad news and take ownership of the leadership decision.)

Acknowledge the Impact

On the other hand, some people deal with the anxiety about bad news by minimizing its impact or quickly trying to look on the bright side. But sometimes scrambling to try to make others feel better has the opposite effect. As you present bad news, give the other person time to process it. Be mindful not to rush others straight to optimism. It's OK to say "I know this is disappointing to hear" or "This may have an impact on our team that you may have concerns about." Help the person feel heard, but pay attention to whether emotions are running too high to continue the conversation in that moment. You both might be better served by continuing at a later time.

Get Your Tone and Body Language in Sync

Even if your words convey the exact message you want to get across, your overall presence might convey something else entirely. For example, a hesitant voice could communicate your lack of confidence in what you're saying. A scowl you can't hide may look like you don't agree with what's happening, even though you claim to.

That's why it's important to work on your delivery in advance, especially if body language and tone have been tricky for you in situations like this in the past. Practice saying your message in front of a mirror so that you can see what else you might be inadvertently communicating with your body language, and adjust accordingly. Saying your message out loud three times beforehand will keep you from fully relying on notes when you're communicating it.

Hopefully, you won't need these strategies too soon, but keep them handy for the next time you have something difficult to discuss. To continue honing your communications skills, take a look at my book Show Up. Step Up. Step Out. You can read the first five chapters for free now.