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How to deliver bad news

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Posted: 
April 9, 2018
Written by: Sheila Ethier , Language Portal of Canada

Have you ever been on the receiving end of bad news? How was it delivered? Gently? Or suddenly, maybe even brutally, with no preparation?

I remember a time when my teenage daughter woke up with a blinding headache and a raging fever. I rushed her to the hospital, where the intake nurse assured me that it was a 24-hour virus.

Then the doctor arrived. He said to me abruptly, “We think your daughter might have meningitis. We’ll have to do a spinal tap.” Shocked, I made a nervous noise that sounded like a laugh. Deciding I was taking things too lightly, he added, “You know, meningitis can be fatal.” After that, they had to put me on a stretcher!

Unfortunately, that doctor didn’t know that there’s an art to delivering bad news. It’s important to prepare your listener or reader for the bad news by leading up to it carefully.

Do you have bad news to deliver? To avoid upsetting your clients more than necessary (or even driving them away), try this simple 4-part plan.

1. Use a neutral opening

Never start off with the bad news. Instead, begin with a neutral statement, one that isn’t negative but isn’t too positive, either. Don’t thank your reader for contacting you; you don’t want to sound so friendly that the person thinks good news is coming!

The best approach is to state a fact (other than the bad news):

We have received your email telling us that you did not get the December issue of our magazine.

2. Give an explanation

Don’t state the bad news just yet! Next, explain why you can’t do what the client wants. The idea is to lead up logically to the bad news. After reading your explanation, your reader should be expecting bad news:

Our records show that we learned of your address change on November 30, after we had mailed out the December issue. Since that issue was especially popular, it sold out completely, and we have no stock left.

3. State the bad news

Now that you’ve prepared your reader, you can deliver the bad news. Begin with a word or a phrase like “As a result” or “For that reason,” to show how the bad news is a logical outcome of the explanation:

For that reason, we are not able to replace your December issue.

4. End with a goodwill close

Do your best to end on a positive note and leave your reader with a good impression, in spite of the bad news. You can do this by ending with a close that is friendly and helpful.

Even though you couldn’t do what your reader wanted, see if you can offer something else in exchange:

However, to make up for your disappointment, we will be happy to extend your subscription an extra two months. We hope you will enjoy your extra issues.

If you follow this simple 4-part plan, you’ll be able to deliver bad news and still keep your client’s business!

What approach have you used in the past to deliver bad news? Did it work, or did it backfire? Do you think this method will help you? Let us know in the comments below!

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

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About the author

Sheila Ethier

Sheila Ethier has taught English and translation at the post-secondary level and has many years’ experience in translation. She enjoys creating content for the Portal.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Public Services and Procurement Canada or the Government of Canada.

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Honesty is always the best policy.
The steps provided make it easy to implement.
Thanks for this technique.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and it serves as a reminder that we can use every day in both our professional and personal lives. Merci beaucoup d'avoir partagé votre histoire touchante!

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