When we must break bad news, we can fail in two basic ways:
- We are so indirect that we don’t actually express the bad news.
Imagine turning down a product proposal only to have the R&D team keep developing it.
- We are so direct that we ruin relationships.
Imagine turning down a product proposal only to have the R&D team quit en masse.
When breaking bad news, we must balance clarity with empathy.
How can I clearly express bad news?
For clarity, you should be able to express the bad news in a single statement. Your bad-news statement should name your topic (what you are writing about) and your purpose (why you are writing about it).
The new product proposal from your team
The board has not selected it for next year.
The new product proposal from your team has not been selected for next year.
Note how this bad-news statement uses passive voice. In a passive sentence, the subject receives the action of the verb rather than doing the action. Passive voice is less direct than active voice and does not focus on the source of the bad news.
Active: The board did not select the new product proposal from your team.
Passive: The new product proposal from your team was not selected.
Readers will also want an explanation of the bad news. Think of what readers need to know to put the bad news in context:
- The R&D budget for next year was reduced, so the board had to be selective about new products.
- The product proposed by your team would fill the same niche as our best-selling product.
- The board wants your team to collaborate with Kathy’s team on a different product.
How can I show empathy?
Don’t start with your bad news: “Your product proposal was rejected for next year.” That feels blunt and rude. Instead, use the BEBE formula.
Open by connecting to readers, showing empathy and understanding.
Provide an explanation leading to the bad news, helping readers understand the context.
Present your bad-news statement clearly so that readers can grasp it.
Focus on the future, outlining whatever professional relationship you hope to have with readers going forward.
Sample Bad-News Message
Dear Jason and Team:
(Buffer) Thank you so much for your new product proposal for next year. The board really appreciates the work you put into this idea.
(Explanation) As you know, the R&D budget for next year has been reduced, so only a few of the many excellent proposals could receive the green light. Your proposal was a strong candidate, but the resulting product would have filled the same market niche as our lead seller. (Bad News) As a result, the proposal from your team was not selected for next year.
(Exit) The company still very much needs your energy and expertise for new products. The board wants your team to collaborate with Kathy’s team on an exciting innovation.
Thank you again for your hard work. We look forward to your team’s contributions to next year’s product line.
Vice President of R&D
How can I practice breaking bad news?
The online mini-course Writing Bad News Messages provides 5 hours of instruction and activities that help you communicate bad news with clarity and empathy. You’ll read explanations, see examples, watch videos, and complete exercises—writing about topics from your workplace. The exercises are scored, with feedback to deepen your learning. You can work on your computer, phone, or smartboard—anywhere you have Internet access.
Upon completion, you’ll receive a certificate for 0.5 continuing education units. You’ll also be able to communicate tough news without alienating readers.
If you want your team to improve their skills, check out the facilitator version of Writing Bad News Messages. You can brand the course however you wish, set up a class roster, track the progress of participants, and even drill down to see their individual answers.