A 5-Step Process For Delivering Tough News

So, you’ve got to drop a truth bomb? This process will help make it easier.

A 5-Step Process For Delivering Tough News
[Photo: Flickr user Martin Cathrae]

Maybe an employee’s work has been subpar lately. Or your coworker is really botching a client interaction. It’s the dreaded moment when it’s time to tell someone a hard truth—and they’re not going to like it.


Before you dive in, you’ve got to consider the situation, says CEO adviser Mindy Mackenzie, author of The Courage Solution: The Power of Truth Telling with Your Boss, Peers, and Team. Telling someone a hard truth to help them get better means that you care enough about that person to do so. It may not always be your place to share something that might be painful or upsetting, but if you have a relationship in which you’re invested, then you owe it to the person to be honest, she says.

“For example, it’s not an act of caring, as a leader, to allow your direct report to think they’re performing well when they are not. In fact, it’s disrespectful to them,” she says.

Once you decide something has to be said, and you’re the one to say it, use this five-step approach to make the process less painful.

Step One: Choose The Right Time.

Most tough conversations are best held in private, Mackenzie says. Don’t launch into such a difficult conversation when the person is agitated or rushed. Starting out with a calm, confidential setting gives you the best chance for a positive outcome, she says.

Step Two: Don’t Blindside.

Give the person a clue about what’s coming, says management psychologist Karissa Thacker, author of The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self. If the person is completely unaware that they’re about to hear something difficult, you risk losing their trust. Thacker suggests saying something like, “I want to have a candid relationship with you,” or “I want us to work together more effectively,” she says.

Step Three: Use the LCS approach.

If you’re still using the old “compliment sandwich” approach—say something nice, deliver criticism, then end with another compliment—it’s time to upgrade, Mackenzie says. The LCS approach is more straightforward and less gratuitous, but still keeps the interaction as pleasant as possible.


Like: Find something positive about the situation at hand. For example, you may appreciate the person’s enthusiasm or dedication to the project. Say so.

Concern: This is where you deliver the tough truth. Frame it as a concern and be specific, Mackenzie says. Share what you really think because this is your opportunity to have an impact.

Suggest: Once you’ve shared the difficult information, offer a suggestion to move the conversation in a positive direction and find solutions. You’re not just unearthing a problem and leaving the person to solve it—you’re actively helping make the situation better, she says.

Step Four: Seek Resolution.

The “suggest” component of the LCS approach puts you on a path toward resolution. Of course, different people react to such information in different ways, Mackenzie says. If you sense that the person is open to having a deeper conversation about how to resolve the issue, then it might be a good idea to pursue it. However, if they are upset or defensive, it may be best to defuse the situation by reminding them that you have their best interests in mind, and continuing the discussion another time.

Step Five: Follow Up.

If you’ve decided to take a “time out” after an emotional or heated response to the truth, do follow up, Thacker says. Space and time help with emotions and some people need time to process information and formulate a proper response. Neglecting to finish the conversation could lead to missing out on important areas of discussion and understanding, she says.

Delivering difficult truths is never easy, but consideration about time and audience, as well as a straightforward, positive method of delivery, can make the process easier on everyone involved, Mackenzie says.


About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books