5 Tips for Delivering Difficult News

Depending on your role at work, there may be times when you are tasked with delivering difficult news to an individual or a group of people.  When I look back on my career so far, both as an employee in the early years and as an entrepreneur for the past 15 years, delivering difficult news stands out as some of the more stressful moments in my career.

For example, as a crisis response social worker, I often was tasked with delivering difficult news to family members.  I will always remember the time I had to tell a mother that her 18-year-old son had died in a car accident at a 4-way intersection only two blocks from their family home.

Difficult news comes in many forms, depending on your role, responsibilities, and workplace and personal realities.  Think for a moment: what type of difficult news have you had to deliver to someone in recent weeks or months?  It is never easy to do this.

Most people find delivering difficult news, or having a difficult conversation, to be both stressful and challenging.  However, when you have some skills, ideas and tools for approaching such situations, these can help you to make the best of this challenging situation for both yourself and the recipients of your message.

Here are five tips for delivering difficult news, to make this challenging task the best it can be:

1. Think and plan ahead

Think about your message, the key focus of the issue or news being shared, and consider whether or not you are the best person to deliver this difficult news.  Plan how you want to deliver the message, where you want to do it, who will be present when you give the news and what options people will have after they receive this difficult news.  Some initial front-end planning and thought can go a long way in making the best of a difficult situation for you and the person being impacted by your message.

2. Consider the location and surrounding environment

It can be helpful and respectful to deliver difficult news in a private and safe environment, thus respecting the individual’s privacy and personal integrity.  For example, if firing someone, don’t do it out in an open office space. Instead, take that person aside where a more personal and compassionate approach can be taken.

3. Provide necessary information

It is important to provide a person or group of people who are receiving difficult news with enough information to help them understand the core message being delivered.  Make sure you are clear with the message you are giving. Explain what the news is as well as what the person might expect next.  Be careful not to overwhelm the person with too much information. Instead, provide them enough information to help the person feel some sense of control during a time when they may feel out of control.

4. Communicate clearly and concisely

It is important to get to the point of your news and be direct with the recipient of that message.  Vague information can be very confusing, anxiety-provoking and upsetting to people.  It is also helpful to be as brief as possible, while balancing the person’s need for information.  The less rambling and build-up to delivering the difficult news, the better.  Clear communication makes the difficult news easier to hear and understand. It also can make things a little less awkward for everyone involved.

5. Be empathetic and supportive

Regardless of the circumstances, it can be helpful to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Think about how they might feel when they hear this difficult news from you.  What might they need?  How can you be a supportive presence even in the midst of having to communicate this difficult news?  If you are unable to be supportive, is there someone you can refer that person to for emotional support if they might need it?  Take the time to listen and respond to the person after your message or news has been delivered.

Delivering difficult news is a leadership and relationship skill; it is an important thing to be able to do in work and in life.  The circumstances in which people receive difficult news can become defining moments for them.  A person might remember such a moment and situation for a long time – in some cases, for the rest of their life.  With this perspective in mind, it is important to deliver difficult news respectfully, compassionately and skillfully.  These five tips can help you do just that.

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Lynda Monk

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

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