Bad News Letter & How to Tell Someone Bad News

Bad News Letter Or In Person | BAD NEWS STRATEGY

When communicating bad news (either spoken or written letter), use the following step-by-step strategy:

Bad News Letter Or In Person | 1. Provide a Buffer

Don’t hit the person right off with the bad news. You should ease into the information. A buffer can be:

-"Thank you for taking the time to write me about the unfortunate experience you had at our restaurant this past weekend."

-"I agree that a product you purchase should last longer than a few months."

-"I’m sorry for the delay in getting back to you concerning your loan application."

Bad News Letter Or In Person | Technique Used In Negotiation

The “buffer” is a technique used in negotiation. Finding something that can be agreed upon by both parties sets a more positive tone for future negotiation.

There are other possible buffers, whatever seems to be appropriate (and sincere) for the situation.

Bad News Letter Or In Person | 2. Give Explanation/Provide Information

In this step, you are providing the information that the reader/listener will need to understand the outcome. For example, when responding to a job applicant you did not hire, you might write, "We had many excellent applicants for this position—making it a difficult decision." Sometimes this step is simply a neutral piece of information that sets a tone for what’s to come. "We pride ourselves on offering customers the best possible service."

Bad News Letter Or In Person | 3. Offer the Decision (Either Stated or Implied)

One of the more interesting parts of this step is to decide whether you directly state the decision ("We’re not refunding your money" or "You didn’t get the job.") or imply the decision ("We gladly refund money within 90 days of purchase" or "We found someone who closely matched our desired qualifications.")

My advice would be—whenever possible—to imply the decision. Most of us can better handle a statement like, "We found someone who closely matched our desired qualifications," as opposed to, "You don’t have the skills we’re looking for."

The only time that I believe directly stating the decision would be preferable is when you’re afraid of legal ramifications or that the decision will be misunderstood. In these cases, I would directly and clearly state the decision.

Bad News Letter Or In Person | 4. Provide a Positive/Neutral Closing

Examples of this would be: "Good luck on your future job search," "Although I’m unable to refund your money, I would welcome the chance to repair the product," or "As an individual’s financial situation changes, we are always willing to re-evaluate loan requests."

Bad News Letter Or In Person | COMMUNICATING BAD NEWS

Next to persuasive communication, the most common type of communicating in the workplace is relaying "bad news"—you didn’t get the job, we’re not extending you the loan, we will be closing our branches on Friday, we’ve sold out of the product you ordered, etc.

To “spin” bad news into at least neutral news is an art in and of itself. In fact, many politicians hire people who are talented at making bad situations seem acceptable (e.g. "fooling around" with a White House intern!) This is where the term “Spin Doctor” comes from.

Bad News Letter Or In Person | Soften Bad News

Sometimes you want to soften the bad news to save a customers’/clients’ feelings. Sometimes you do it for legal reasons ("covering" yourself). Here are some hints to communicating bad news:

Bad News Letter Or In Person | Don't Use Personal Pronouns

Try not to use personal pronouns. Instead of saying, "You must not have read the warranty information when you purchased the product—of course, we won’t refund your money after 90 days!" It is much less abrasive to say, "Oftentimes, customers overlook the warranty information that comes in the package."

Don’t be "phony" with your "spin" on the situation. Once I received a letter from my bank that stated, "To serve you better, we will be closing some of our branches on Wednesdays." How does that serve me better? I think we can see through that pretty quickly.

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