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Career Advice

5 Phrases to Never Say When Delivering Bad News

Posted by Sarah Greesonbach

Last Updated October 5, 2017

Whether you’re telling a coworker you’ve made a huge mistake or you’re a manager who needs to lay someone off, every time you deliver bad news you run the risk of being shot as the messenger. Why? Because as social creatures, we’re naturally drawn to phrases and excuses that drain the perceived painfulness of our message — but often only make that message more painful.

But you don’t have to fall for these lame linguistic leanings every time you share something unpleasant. Even if the only bad news you have to deliver today is, “I’m going to be late!” here are five phrases you should avoid if you don’t want to make the bad news worse.

1. “I’m so sorry, but…”

“Managers sometimes appear uncaring when they announce bad news because they worry they might look weak,” writes Kevin Daley, founder of Communispond Inc, for The Harvard Business Review. “It’s better to worry about looking uncaring. Be compassionate, but don’t apologize for your bad news or talk at length about how bad you feel.”

For those who have to figure out how to deliver bad news on a regular basis, keep in mind that, “I’m sorry, but…” is the quickest way to make delivering bad news negatively impact how people perceive you. Any variation of this phrase — for example, “This is so unfair, but…” or “I don’t think this is right, but” — will undermine your authority and make people wonder why you’re delivering a message you don’t support. 

2. “While I have you here…”

“Bad news should never come as a surprise,” writes Robert Bies, a professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, for Forbes. “Failure to warn senior leadership of impending bad news, such as poor sales or a loss of a major client, is a cardinal sin. So is failure to warn subordinates about mistakes in their performance and provide an opportunity for them to make corrections and improve.”

So if you’re a manager, don’t pull someone aside at the end of a meeting or drop a bad news bomb in passing. Set aside calendar time or wait for a regularly scheduled 1:1 meeting to speak. If you’re a coworker, make your message clear by saying, “Hey, I have some bad news to share, but I think together we can figure something out — do you have time today to meet privately?”

3. With too many details

Share context, but share it quickly, says Daley: “Too much background up front can make you look insecure about getting to the bad news itself. If you played a part in what went wrong, or took part in a decision that will be painful for [people] to hear, admit it.”

Especially if you’re trying to figure out how to deliver bad news in response to an impromptu question, putting off bad news with too many details will look like you’re making excuses for it. Don’t be tempted to over-explain what caused the problem, how it could have been avoided or who else is to blame — just get to the point.

4. “I’m not clear on the details, but…”

Never hide the facts, says Bies. “While [withholding information out of fear, or to save face] may be a natural reaction, withholding information can cause a wrong diagnosis of the actual problem or an underestimation of the extent of the cause of the bad news.”

Hiding what you know or not having all the details before you share bad news won’t solve any problems — it will only make things worse. Make sure you have all the information you’ll need before you share the unpleasant update.

5. Without planning ahead

“Once you know that you have to convey a difficult message, start thinking about how you will say those words,” writes Sharlyn Lauby on her popular blog, HRBartender. “Sometimes as managers, we are asked to communicate bad news that was decided by senior management. The last thing we want to do is throw anyone under the bus, so find the best way to deliver the message using your own voice.”

As the person trying to figure out how to deliver bad news, you have an advantage over the recipient: you already know what the bad news is. That gives you time to carefully plan your message so that it will be received in the most productive way possible.

When it comes to communicating in the workplace, nothing catches you off guard like having to share something negative. Study this list to make sure that the next time you deliver bad news, it doesn't spell bad news for your relationships at work.

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