—Matias, a retail store manager, must tell his employees that store hours will be extended one additional hour into the evening.
—James, a customer service manager, has to deny a customer’s request for a refund.
—Heidi, a personnel manager, needs to document in an email why a subordinate is being put on probation.
Each of these situations involves giving bad news, while still attempting to retain goodwill with the person receiving the news. Sooner or later, everyone in positions of responsibility has to give bad news, which is rarely a pleasant task. There’s no one right way that works in every situation, but here are a few tips that can help.
Start by completing a CAPS planning process, ultimately selecting appropriate communication strategies.
Context analysis: Identify the factors that make this bad-news message necessary. What is your current relationship with the person? Is it a positive, neutral, or negative relationship? What would you like your future relationship to be like? What is needed to move your relationship to the desired level? Is the message recipient inside or outside your organization? If inside, remember that you’ll have to work with this person in the future.
Audience analysis: Look at the situation through their eyes. Try to comprehend how the bad news will affect them. Then sincerely try to minimize the negative effect of the bad news.
Purpose: Clarify the purposes of your message—to inform, to persuade, and to strive to build, maintain, or strengthen trust. Decide on what you think would be the ideal outcome of your message.
Strategy: Take steps to achieve the ideal outcome. Consider using the following four strategies—provide good reasoning, use an appropriate psychological approach, provide options as appropriate, and use appropriate wording
1. Provide good reasoning. Ideally, you want the readers of your negative messages to agree that you are justified in your reasoning. Therefore, be sure to have good reasons, whether financial, legal, ethical, or otherwise. Then clearly explain your reasoning in the most persuasive way possible.
Example: “With more daylight during the summer evenings, more customers are shopping later, so we need to keep our stores open longer to meet their needs.”
Regardless of your reasoning, people are still receiving bad news, which they won’t be happy about. But if you can convince them that you used solid reasoning in arriving at your decision, that will usually help soften the blow.
You might not feel a need to cite all the reasons for your decisions, but make sure to include the reasons that are most persuasive. For instance, your main motive for terminating someone might be their negative attitude, but because negative attitude is so difficult to measure or quantify, you might just cite discuss their substandard customer service ratings as the reason for your decision.
In your reasoning, include any benefits coming from your decision.
Example: “This policy enables us to maintain our low prices, which provide benefits for you and all of our customers.”
2. Use an appropriate approach. If the impact on the audience is going to be minor, you can take a more direct approach. But if the impact will be major, an indirect approach will usually be best. With a direct approach, give the negative news at or near the beginning, followed by the reasons for the bad news.
Example: “I’m sorry to have to deny your request for a replacement of your Columbia hiking shoes. These shoes come with a full-refund policy if the shoes are returned in like-new condition within 30 days. As we analyzed your purchase of these shoes, we found that the shoes were returned three months after purchase, not within the 30-day required refund period.”
With an indirect approach, give the reasons for the bad news, followed by the bad news.
Example: “Thanks for your request for a refund on your Columbia hiking shoes. These shoes come with a full-refund policy if the shoes are returned in like-new condition within 30 days. As we analyzed your purchase of these shoes, we found that the shoes were returned three months after purchase, not within the 30-day required refund period. Therefore, we are unable to give a refund.”
To de-emphasize the bad news, you can also embed it in the middle of a paragraph. For example, begin the paragraph with the reasons for the bad news, followed by the bad news, followed by other information that softens the blow.
Example: “These shoes come with a full-refund policy if the shoes are returned in like-new condition within 30 days. Because the shoes were returned after the 30-day required refund period, a full refund can’t be given. However, we are sending you a 30 percent coupon that you can use toward the purchase of another pair of shoes.”
3. Provide options. When giving bad news, try to find something positive to offer the person.
Example: “I’ll be happy to give you time off to attend our monthly two-day customer-service training.”
Also explain other actions the readers might take to minimize or reverse the negative situation, such as, “You can find additional online customer-service training to help improve your ratings.”
4. Choose appropriate words. As you give bad news, minimize the use of negative words, such as won’t, can’t, and didn’t. Instead, use more neutral or positive words. For example, instead of saying, “We can’t give you a refund,” you might say, “If the shoes had been returned within the 30-day period, we would have been able to grant your refund request.”
Also, you can use passive-voice sentence construction, instead of active voice, in conveying the bad news. Don’t say, “Because of your 2.6 customer service rating, I can’t give you a ‘Satisfactory” review.” But rather say, “Because of your 2.6 customer service rating, a ‘Satisfactory’ review can’t be given.”
The foregoing tips are proven methods for dealing with delivering bad news, whether in face-to-face situations or in writing. As you apply these methods, you’ll find that both your confidence and your effectiveness will increase.
If I were to come to your front door and invite you to go for a ride, what would you say? Probably something like, “Where are we going?” If I were then to say, “I’m not going to tell you,” you would likely respond, “Uh, I’m pretty busy right now. Sorry.”
The idea that I would invite you to go for a ride and not tell you our destination seems completely unreasonable. Yet that is what many of us do when we sit down to compose a message to someone else. We simply start writing and don’t tell our readers where we’re going. An example follows:
“Hi Tom. Yesterday I met with Jenny about the deadlines we’re facing on our product-improvement launch scheduled for March 10. I expressed concern that her developers are falling behind on their product-improvement deadlines and that missing this launch date would be a huge problem for our company. Marketing has been preparing a major event for the launch, and to miss the deadline would be disastrous. Our clients have been asking for these improvements for many months, and we simply have to respond to their requests. Jenny said her developers have been sidetracked from their work several times to work on bug fixes for the last release and that the fixes had to take priority. I tried to emphasize the critical importance of the new improvements. Jenny said she understood our situation and would try to do the best she could to meet our needs. I suggested that we have a meeting with her and her developers each Monday to review progress. That way we can know what’s going on with the developers, and we can continue to stress the need to meet deadlines, even if it means working overtime or hiring some temporary help. She agreed to that and the first meeting is scheduled for next Monday at 9 a.m. in Creekside Conference Room. I hope you can attend.”
The preceding message seems to have the appropriate content, but the organization needs work. The unfortunate reader of the message has to blindly follow all the twists and turns in the road until finally arriving at the destination. In a sense, the writer said, “Let’s go for a ride, but I’m not going to tell you where I’m taking you.”
If you think this might be a problem in your writing, consider using an OABC pattern. Whereas the first example has an opening, a body, and a closing, OABC writing has an opening, an agenda, a body, and a closing. See what a difference an agenda can make:
“Hi Tom. Yesterday I met with Jenny about the deadlines we’re facing on our product-improvement launch scheduled for next month. The following paragraphs include my concerns, Jenny’s response, and our plan to address the problem.
Regarding my concerns, I told Jenny that her developers don’t seem to be current with their product-improvement deadlines and that missing this launch date would be a huge problem for our company. Because our clients have been asking for these improvements for months, and marketing has been preparing a major event for the launch, missing the deadline would be disastrous.
Jenny said her developers have been sidetracked several times to work on bug fixes for the last release and that the fixes had to take priority. However, Jenny said she understood our situation and would try to do the best she could to meet our needs.
To resolve the problem, I suggested that we have a meeting with Jenny and her developers each Monday to review progress. That way we can keep current on the developers’ progress, and we can continue to stress the need to meet deadlines—even if it means working overtime or hiring some temporary help. Jenny agreed to this meeting idea, and our first meeting is scheduled for next Monday at 9 a.m. in Creekside Conference Room. I hope you can attend.”
Why Use OABC?
Including an agenda after opening a message can work wonders, both for the writer and for the readers. For the writer, an agenda serves as an outline that guides the structure and development of the subsequent content. The agenda also serves as a contract with the reader, and the writer’s content and structure are thereby made clear, as demonstrated in the second message example.
For readers, an agenda provides a roadmap for the textual trip they are taking with the writer. In the second message, the agenda tells the readers they’re going to encounter three segments on the trip—the writer’s concerns, Jenny’s response, and a solution to the problem. In a sense, an agenda creates mental storage buckets for placing the subsequent material. An agenda also makes messages more skimmable, so readers who don’t care about some parts of the message can skip directly to the parts they are most concerned about—in this case, the solution.
Agendas can be written in one or more of the following four forms. (Did you notice that I just used an agenda to introduce the list?)
Next time you have to create an oral or written message at work, try organizing it into an OABC pattern. I think you and your audience will quickly see the benefits.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we believe that communication is the lifeblood of management. We hope these posts will help you more effectively communicate and manage in your organization.