How to Communicate Bad News


Whether in your personal or professional life, you’ve likely had to deliver bad news to another person. How did the task make you feel? Did you try to avoid the conversation at all costs? Did the thought of the person’s reaction (or even retaliation) fill you with dread?

Communicating negative news to someone else is never fun, but it doesn’t have to be anxiety-inducing! It is possible to approach a delicate topic with sensitivity, poise, and an action plan.

As a business consult, I often go into companies and help them organize and improve their operations. Although that sounds impersonal, sometimes it involves pinpointing inefficiencies in certain departments or even certain people. And that’s very personal! A negative report can lead to the restructuring of a department or shuffling of personnel. In the process, some people might be let go or put on ultimatum.

As someone who has had many first-hand experiences with tough conversations, here are my five crucial steps to effectively communicating bad news:

1. Employ an appropriate delivery method

You’ll want to properly set the stage for communicating your bad news. Oftentimes, that means meeting face-to-face in a quiet location, preferably in a private office or conference room. It’s rarely appropriate to send bad news via email or even over the phone—the only exception is if you’re working with a long-distance client or staff member who cannot easily come into the office. Even in those circumstances you can still create a positive atmosphere by purposely setting aside time for the phone call and placing the call in a quiet space which won’t be disturbed.

2. Review the approach

Don’t go into your meeting without thinking over your approach. Consider how best to frame the news. I have found that candidly laying out a roadmap for the meeting can be effective for setting the tone. It’s also a good idea to encourage the other person to enter into a dialogue, so that they don’t close themselves off or disengage from what you’re trying to tell them. For instance:

“Thank you for meeting me today, Jane. I would like to go over some of the struggles your team is having with XYZ project and some of the ways we might be able to solve these issues. But first, I’d like to hear your take on this. Have you noticed any areas of difficulty with your team lately?”

Of course, not every conversation will warrant feedback from the other person. In those cases, your approach will be adjusted to be more of a delivery than a dialogue.

3. Cite external sources, when possible

If you have statistics or studies to back up your bad news, use them! Evidence will help the other person understand the reasoning behind the negative news. Citing external sources also helps to take the focus off of you and redirect it to the bigger picture. It makes a decision seem less personal and more evidence-driven (which it should be!).

4. Craft your message with sensitivity

Before you have your meeting, take a few minutes to step inside the other person’s shoes and think about how they might receive the news. What can you say to soften the blow? What positive messages can you work into an unfortunate situation? Consider how you can show the recipient that you truly care about them and their success, no matter how difficult the situation may be. Make sure that whatever you say is heartfelt and sincere.

Be sure to explain the reasons behind an action. If you do not, you’ll be doing the other person a disservice and they will likely leave the meeting confused and angry.

5. Prepare recommended courses of action

If you have to fire someone or downsize their department or cut the yearly budget, be sure to have an action plan that can help that individual (or team) move forward in a positive, productive way. Recommend specific resources and next-steps that will help ease the blow.

This step is the true focus of the meeting. Deliver the news as sensitively as possibly, then discuss how to move forward. If you don’t, the recipient of the news will likely be left reeling and wondering where to go next. Show that you genuinely care about their wellbeing by providing thoughtful, detailed courses of action.


Delivering bad news is an unfortunate part of leadership, but it doesn’t have to debilitate or overwhelm you. Tough decisions have to be made for the good of the company and occasionally that means certain individuals or departments will take a blow. Put your empathetic skills to work and ease the sting of a difficult conversation.

Need further guidance? Contact me today.