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How do we tell people who depend upon us that something important, a thing that matters to them, will stop, be withdrawn, or worse?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.