From the Comms Cupboard

How to be good at breaking bad news

How to be good at breaking bad news
John and Shaun discuss the practicalities around delivering bad news, while sat in their pitch black cupboard.

It’s an episode about being prepared, having empathy, avoiding the grapevine, being honest and being available. And George Clooney may pop up somewhere, which is always a good thing.

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Episode transcript

John: Is it strange that I hear that jingle now, when you say that?

Shaun: Because I put the jingle in afterwards …

John: Yeah, I don’t think people realise that.

Shaun: They think we’re playing it on a little xylophone 🎶

John: That would be fun 😁

Shaun: So when I do the intro, you now sort of hear it and then … do, do-do-do, do-do, do, do-do, do-do ding 🛎

John: And then I feel like I’m on Bake Off!

Shaun: I’ve been eating way too much cake lately. But if you were to tell me I should cut down on cake, that would be bad news, right?

John: Well, not for your arteries, but maybe for your soul.

Shaun: So let’s talk about how to deliver bad news. Let’s leave cake out of this for now. What are the key ingredients (and I’m not talking about cake) of delivering bad news? Shall we talk about what bad news is first or should we just crack right in?

John: I think bad news explains itself.

Shaun: Does it, though? Isn’t bad news different for different people?

John: Yeah, I guess it depends what you’re going to hear.

Shaun: Because bad news for one person could be great news for somebody else.

John: Let’s define it as something that’s bad for you to hear. It’s not going to be positive.

Shaun: Yeah … Sally, you’re leaving us tomorrow, sorry. George, you’ve been promoted. You got Sally’s job.

John: Poor Sally! What do they always say … Is it mainly governments, where they let something happen and then sneak out some bad news? You know, a natural disaster or something has happened in the world. So this is a good day for bad news.

Shaun: Yeah, they hide it.

John: They brush it out and hope the press don’t catch on.

Shaun: Isn’t it funny how clever the press think they are, but they fall for that every time.

John: Yeah. But back to your question … What are the best ways to deliver it? I guess the best thing is to be direct. There’s nothing worse than being given bad news and then someone talking around how great it is, or how great this is for you and what an opportunity it is. It’s nicer to be really fair and clear, isn’t it? So your Sally being let go: she doesn’t need to know that it’s a good opportunity for someone else. You need to have empathy for her situation.

Shaun: Yeah, and not dress it up as something else. No sugarcoating. I wonder if that’s something that a leader who is not well versed in communication may stumble over. They think they have to overexplain the bad news.

John: Yeah absolutely, and give all the reasons for it.

Shaun: You don’t have to give all the reasons for it.

John: No, you don’t. It always comes back to this, that if you’re not used to doing it, then you need to prepare for it.

Shaun: Are we talking about planning again, John Barnham?

John: I’m going to say preparation – good preparation. You need to think about what you’re going to say to someone, unless you’re super-confident and you know what you’re gonna do, because it’s never nice to give someone bad news. If you do like giving bad news, then perhaps … I’m thinking of that film with George Clooney – Up in the Air – where his job is to deliver the bad news to people. They fly around the world. It’s a good movie that 🎬

Shaun: It’s a good film. Wasn’t there a scene with J. K. Simmons, and she gives the bad news. She’s in training. She’s following George to shadow him and she messes it up royally.

John: Yeah, because she talks around it too much.

Shaun: That’s a really good example. I feel like watching that film now.

John: It’s a good movie. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’ve got to prepare for it and think about the questions that that person may have. So, like any communication, you’re going to say, when this message goes out, what’s going to come back? What are people going to ask about this? Are they going to challenge it?

Shaun: And different people will have different questions depending on how it affects them, because bad news can affect different people in different ways.

John: Some people think on their feet and others don’t. So some people will get the bad news, they’ll take in, they go away and then come back with some questions. A conversation a lot of people are having at the moment, about people losing their jobs or redundancy, some people are gonna be really shocked – how you take any news in – and maybe will go away and then think of things they want to ask you afterwards. That’s part of what you need to do as a good leader, if you’re delivering bad news, is give them that opportunity to come back to you. Take it away. Other people are gonna think on their feet and they were maybe expecting the bad news, because some people are gonna really feel that coming, so they might be like [finger snaps] five or six questions to put you on the spot.

Shaun: Yeah, there is that sense of follow-up – of being available. I think you’re right that when you’re in the moment, it can be a little bit of a surprise for you. But if you are a good leader – a good communicator – to be able to say, “Look, you may not have the question right now, but if you have it later, tomorrow, next week, you can phone me. Knock on my door. I’m available for you.

John: The other thing that always comes to mind with bad news for me is finding it out from the person giving it as opposed to finding it out on the grapevine. There’s nothing worse than knowing … finding out … hearing two people having a coffee down the road. So empathy is a big part of it, and part of that is to make sure that you’re the first to know when you find out. It’s horrible to know you haven’t got something, or something’s not gone right, but to have heard it from someone else who’s not involved in it at all.

Shaun: Or the businesses is in trouble. I imagine this is quite difficult if you are a business that needs to encourage the facade of doing well, even though you know you’re not because you may have shareholders, and all this sort of thing, and you need to show that “We’re OK. We’re getting through this.” At the same time, your employees need to know the truth because they’re the ones who are going to help you out of it.

John: You want them to be performing better, don’t you?

Shaun: That’s sugar-coating, isn’t it, when you tell your employees that actually the business is doing really, really well – keep going! But actually, it’s not, and you find out in The Sunday Times.

John: Yeah. We’ve probably all been there, where someone comes to you with this bad message, this bad news that you need to put out there, but want you to dress it up a little bit as something else. So from a comms professional perspective, you would always want to encourage people to be as truthful as possible. Obviously, you don’t want to create panic in an organisation, but you do want people to know what they’re doing.

Shaun: I’ve always appreciated truth. Because I’ve been made redundant, I’ve been in companies that have been liquidated. I’ve also been asked to take a pay cut, and things like that. I remember a good incident of being made redundant, and it was handled so well and so humanely with a sense of empathy and humanity, that I left that company and wanted it to succeed after me. I thought that my sacrifice of being let go … I hope that company … I hope it’s worthwhile. I’ve also been with the company that was rather dishonest and they left things till the last minute. You know, I wanted them to go under!

John: You shared with me a couple of weeks ago a really great communication from a company that you know well, who had unfortunately been forced to lay some people off but really not wanted to do that. And I think most companies don’t want to do that, and had really set about helping those people to make the best start: giving them advice, giving them equipment, but also offering to give them really good recommendations to employers. Which I think we need at the time, to feel that way, so I think that was a really good example.

Shaun: Very transparent, wasn’t it? Like you said at the beginning of this conversation, there was a sense of assertiveness to it. Being direct, but also being human. And remembering … the laptop we’ve given you, keep it. It’s gonna help you get your next job. If we can do that little thing for you, then that’s what we’ll do.

John: Exactly.

Shaun: It was such a good letter.

John: It was fantastic.

Shaun: Before we finish this … We’ve made an assumption a little bit in this conversation, that bad news is often delivered face to face. The worst possible thing you can do is get it via an email, or newsletter! 😦 Do companies do that or am I just thinking badly of them?

John: Oh, I bet they do. We might be seeing big examples of companies going into administration at the moment, and you may just a letter or not even know. You see it on the news: “We turned up to work today … “

Shaun: And all the desks have gone!

John: And there’s just a piece of paper stuck to the window that said, “We’ve gone into administration. You’re not being paid.”

Shaun: It’s awful.

John: It is awful. The best way to give bad news is always to be up-front and personal to that person, right? You have to as much as possible.

Shaun: In a different episode, perhaps we should talk about what it’s like to receive bad news. But I think that’s for a different episode. For now, let’s think good news. Everything’s good news 😬

John: Everything’s going well!


Photo by Romain V on Unsplash

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