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How to deliver bad news in a positive way

Negative information doesn’t have to result in disappointment. 

How to deliver bad news in a positive way
[Photos: Jaclyn Moy/Unsplash; dghagi/iStock; Minerva Studio/iStock; virtustudio/iStock]

In ancient Persia, there was a messenger who reported whether or not his army had been victorious in battle. If they won, citizens celebrated him like a hero. If their army lost, the messenger could expect to be executed immediately–even though he had nothing to do with the outcome. Oddly, there are no reports of messengers lying about a victory and sneaking out after the party.

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Today, viewers regularly subject meteorologists to abuse when bad weather hits–as if they are in a position to control it. U.S. psychologist Robert Cialdini mentions an incident in which an angry farmer approached a weather forecaster as he entered a bar. The farmer said, “You’re the one that sent that tornado and tore my house up . . . I’m going to take your head off.” The weatherman replied, “That’s right about the tornado, and I’ll tell you something else, I’ll send another one if you don’t back off.”

In this case, the halo effect is at work, as something positive or negative directly rubs off on the messenger.

Bad news can be good news

It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO or the intern. At some point in your career, you need to deliver bad news. The thing is, people are often far too quick to think that a seemingly negative situation is unfavorable towards them. For instance, if I order a turkey breast salad and the server tells me, with sad eyes, that they are “very, very sorry,” but the only salad available is with chicken breast, they’re putting themselves and the restaurant in a bad light. I’ll probably reflexively stand up and head to another restaurant.

Instead, if they tell me with shining eyes about their chef’s excellent salad, which has the most tender chicken breast on the planet, I’ll certainly be intrigued and want to order it. So even though it’s the same problem–chicken instead of turkey–the outcome is completely different depending on how they chose to present it. It’s possible to take a potentially negative situation and turn it into an advantage.

Reframing a situation can go a long way

The “framing” of a situation–the lens you put on to understand specific circumstances–can change how you see a situation. For example, instead of saying, “Unfortunately, we only have fresh rolls for breakfast,” you could state, “We have rolls for breakfast.” And instead of, “Unfortunately, we cannot show you our new model before November,” say, “We can show you our new model in November.” Small changes in wording can make a significant difference.

An adventurous salesman from the Czech American Bata Shoe Company was supposed to investigate the possibilities for growth in the African market at the end of the 19th century. As the story goes, his colleague had been very upset by the fact that most people went barefoot in Africa. His colleague concluded, “There’s no business for Bata here.” The salesman didn’t take that approach–instead, he reframed the situation and told to the home office: “Great business for Bata, everyone is barefoot!”

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Convinced!: How to Prove Your Competence & Win People Over by Jack Nasher

There are lots of ways to apply this concept to everyday obstacles: You have delivery problems? Demand is exploding. Are you facing resistance to your decisions? Effective changes are always hard to implement. Did you lose a customer? A new generation of influential customers is replacing the old ones. You can even engineer a positive outcome from silly mistakes. Let’s say you send out an email invitation with an incorrect date on it? That gives you a great reason to follow up with something like “Correction of the previous email!” in the subject line. Now, your recipients are more likely to read your original email and the follow-up.

Your own perception of success or failure plays a crucial role in how you frame a situation and how you respond to others. Have you ever caught yourself gratefully thanking someone for his work even though the outcome he delivered was far below your expectations? If someone beams at us with pride over a job well done, it creates a certain expectation and pressure for us to respond positively.

In these instances, those who did the work are framing the situation in their favor, even if it didn’t meet our expectations. The lesson here is that you, too, should be framing your response to a situation in a way that causes the other party involved to see the upsides, or at least still see the positive effort on your part. Yes, there are bad news that you can’t frame positively–but most of the time, what you’re about to say doesn’t need to be as bad as you think.


This article is adapted from Convinced! How to Prove Your Competence and Win People Over by Jack Nasher. It is reprinted with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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