How to break bad news

How do we tell people who depend upon us that something important, a thing that matters to them, will stop, be withdrawn, or worse? And what if the reason is because of a choice that we made?

It’s one thing to call up and say: “Tornado blew down the warehouse, sorry your shipment will be delayed.”

It’s entirely different to say: “There’s something I’ve done (or my team / company did) and you’re now going without ________.”

Breaking bad news starts with acknowledgement. There’s not much more to the formula than that it be done honestly, which implies the others perspective is included. Honesty is more than accuracy. An honest acknowledgement sets us up for later resolution.

Name it bad news if that’s what it is to the listener. Calling it bad news can be the hardest part. We want to qualify away the bad parts, as if it can be done less than fully. But it’s a moment to climb out of the positivity box. Do this as a step towards resolution.

Beware the hopeful spinner who puts forth a version that is much easier to say. Don’t confuse spin for skill, nor strategy; it’s subterfuge that costs. If your teenager can sniff out your agenda, or any ulterior motive at all, so can your customers.

A gym with 1000 enthusiastic members declared its closure as a transformational metamorphosis, amazing and exciting. In fact, it was a business pivot. But the email from the owner elicited confusion, then anger. Questions, then bargaining, some pleading, denial, and then more anger.

Yes, the gym really was closing. No, they didn’t name it bad news. The company’s Facebook page became a parody of denial and positivity as customer service staff turned to talking points, an apparent script to affirm the GOOD news. Be happy (for us), don’t worry.

There doesn’t need to be a 10 step formula for how to break bad news when you start with acknowledgement. But you may need more than 10 steps to recover should you skip over this part.

Once I phoned a customer to explain something I had done that was very bad news. I said that he was now liable for $250,000 for breaking his contract with his merchant processing bank, who was liable to VISA for holding him to that contract, because my software product failed to encrypt his customers credit cards before they were stolen by Russian hackers. And there was more bad news, but that’s another story.

Suffice to say, it was a difficult conversation to initiate. The experience was made easier by starting with acknowledgement.

Actually there was nothing about it that was easy. It was never “easier,” not that phone call nor any of the other calls that long day. But acknowledgement made the difference palpably in the moment, and later, financially for us all.

Seek the eyes

The discomfort feels too much. You may avert your eyes.

From the angry customer kept waiting.

From the exasperated neighbor.

From the disappointed child.

So long as you keep your eyes fixed and gazing out there somewhere, it’ll still be a problem whether you move past the other or turn away from them. There’s no getting around the discomfort of it.

The missing part, the step towards repair, is something the eyes can deliver in an instant: acknowledgement. I see you.

To acknowledge with the eyes instantly sends the message that the other matters. To be seen feels good, no doubt. To not be seen can feel awful.

So when a young restaurant host repeatedly moves in and around me and a waiting throng of would-be diners, avoiding eye contact and pretending deafness, I imagine he’s filling in for someone in a pinch. Surely this busy of a restaurant knows better.

But then a manager arrives to aid the host and similarly keeps her gaze away from waiting customers’ eyes. As groups turn out the door in dismay, the manager speaks to the host disparagingly about ‘people’ who don’t understand….

She’s trying to calm the inexperienced host. Her words are meant to help, as is her hustle to seat people at tables. But in colluding with the host, she compounds the problem. It’s something I’ve done before under stress.

The problem is this: we disparagingly distinguish between us versus them, the staff versus the customers. We talk amongst ourselves about ‘we’ who understand (insert the technicalities of your business here) versus those who don’t.

Caught up in the rush, the manager is absolving the host of his anguish. But she’s not doing the simple but harder thing: meeting my eyes.

A leader demonstrates how its to be done, in the moment if necessary. This comes before absolving failure, and instead of drawing distinctions between us and them.

Acknowledge the person before you who keenly feels the problem. Customers, neighbors, kids, all the same.

Acknowledgement takes courage. It is easier said than done. And it can start as simply as a meeting of the eyes.

Do customers believe you?

I’m here to take care of you.

I’m going to do everything in my power to keep you safe and see you through this.

You are my number 1 priority.

This is my customer experience as I’m wheeled into the ICU, greeted by nurse Juanita.

As important as these powerful first words was her tone of voice. It was the voice of conviction. And her eyes that held my own. I believed her.

Somehow she knew of the EMT paramedics’ comment in the ambulance. She assured me that all was not lost. But she needed my attention and cooperation for as long as I could maintain consciousness.

Sometimes there is a need for deference, for receptivity in how we relate to those we are serving. Sometimes its the opposite: they need our direction, our utmost conviction.

In times of distress, how do we meet the anxiety of our customers? How do we determine whether to give deference or direction?

This depends on our customers’ role expectations. It varies from ICU nurse to customer service agent, of course.

So while our response will be situational, one aspect ought be universal: all the ways in which we communicate deference or direction need consistently line up. We need to believe it before our customers.

Nurse Juanita expressed 100% congruence in words, tone of voice, and body language. It all lined up. This congruence, this consistency is what Al Mehrabian described as effective and meaningful communication according to his 7%-38%-55% Rule.

Belief doesn’t just come from words, from an optimal script. If your words communicate something different from your voice or body, you’ll end up with customer disbelief.

Imagining our control

As I lay in the ambulance, a vessel in my brain was leaking blood into my skull. My capacity to think, to be conscious was diminishing. My ability to direct anything at all would soon stop.

From a position of agency — as entrepreneur, father, athlete — I was moved to a position of utter dependence. From a preoccupation with planning for the future, I was moved to the terrible present.

What moved, exactly, I ask myself looking back from the other side?

Now it seems nothing changed about my circumstances more than my regard for them. It may be that as we mistakenly live in hope, so also are we mistaken in imagining our control.

A brain, bleeding slowly enough, focuses the mind before disabling it. What I took for granted of my children as infants is also true for my adult self: we are fragile, brief, and dependent.

You may want to qualify that conclusion. I still do. As I regain ability and capacity since my experience, I want to qualify it as I did before: If I do…. If I have…. Then I’ll triumph.

But nonetheless, we are fragile, brief, and dependent. So what to do with this conclusion?

If you felt dependent upon others, how might you work with them?

If you felt the brevity of life, what work might you do rather than defer?

And given our fragility, to what end, for whose agenda, are you working?

Hopefully mistaken

Is my neck broken? I asked.

Honey, with what you’ve got going on, you’ll wish it was a broken neck.

And with that reply, the EMT paramedic clicked the ambulance’s back door shut. Bound to the stretcher, I looked up at the green ceiling, searching. I felt the increasing speed of the wheels as we left the emergency room’s parking lot and turned onto the road.

This was my second ambulance of the night. I was going from one hospital to another, to the special-hospital-for-the-scary-serious-stuff. This is a moment the extraneous falls away. You wonder about your dependents. You hope it’ll be okay. Hope for “more time.”

This is the first blog post published at In those that follow, I’ll finish the story started in this one, being alive to tell it. But first, an observation that strikes me now:

For as long as I can remember, hope foolishly guided me. I planned ahead. I anticipated next year and the next many after that. Given more time, I would achieve some future outcome. Always did I assume my future self would be in a position to optimize it further. I would always be able to think, move, act.

Do you proceed along similarly?

How fundamental, how universal are our assumptions of a) more time, and b) a capacity in body and mind?

Do you expect to be able to get up tomorrow and work towards that for which you hope?

Hopefulness is a forerunner of endurance. With sufficient hope, we develop the capacity of endurance. This looks like self-discipline and is called a virtue.

But hope can be cruel. Hope can be the reason we tolerate what does not work, what should not continue, or what ought not be delayed. A bully whom we excuse. A missed dinner with the family. A deferred phone call to a friend.

Cruel also are hope’s ingredients, the assumptions of more time and continued capacity. They are cruel when untrue. They are always untrue at a point unknown to you or me.