John Bennett/ August 10, 2020/ Change, Development, Leadership, Teaching

I’ve noticed that many people are delivering (and receiving) unpleasant news more than usual — messages that were not expected, contrary to the norm or unwanted, and negatively impacting. Obviously, the current pandemic may be fueling this. The news about job loss, health conditions, layoffs, furloughs, elimination of bonuses and pay increases, possible pay cuts, different expectations, in-person school programs moving to virtual formats, students not able to go to campus for the fall term, and forecasts of what the near-term might involve, seem to come up daily in conversations with clients, colleagues, and friends

I’ve never found it easy to deliver (or receive) unpleasant messages. They have an emotionally negative impact. They disrupt. They prompt adjustment or change. They require sacrifice. So, what can you do to prepare and deliver such messages? And, what can you do to help yourself receive and process these messages?

Let’s Start with Delivering the Message

It will probably not be easy. As difficult as delivering this message is to youy, it is probably not as difficult as it will be for the recipient. Take time to consider the impacts—e.g., emotional, physical, financial. You may not do it perfectly; you are going to do our best. Here are some steps you might take:

  • Prepare: What is the key message? Why is this message being delivered? (Adults especially like to know “why?”) If it helps, write the message down and practice delivering it. It may be useful to write a note as if the meeting has already taken place. This aligns with the practice of “start with the end in mind”. If there are corporate or legal implications for this message, be sure you have a clear understanding of those guidelines. 
  • Schedule a date, time, and place that is mutually convenient and as soon as practical. In our current physical distance mode of functioning, you may have to have the conversation via video-conference. Try to use video-conference vs. telephone. That will make the connection more personal and you can read body language in response to your message being delivered. 
  • Be sincere and demonstrate empathy as you take the following steps:
    1. State the message. Provide the context for the news, deliver the key message, explain the rationale, and pause. Let the recipient process the message.
    2. Ask the recipient to restate the message. This will help to ensure there is a shared understanding.
    3. Tell them what, if any, support is available to them. This might include an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), outplacement services, paid time-off, etc.
    4. Tell the recipient that they may have questions and that you will do your best to answer them or get the answers to them. Then, ask them what, if any, questions they may have. Respond to those you can, and commit to getting answers to the others. 
    5. End the conversation. While it may be difficult to end the conversation with the person being upset, there is a point where you need to allow them to process the message without you.

Receiving the Message

As the recipient, here are some tips to help you receive and process the message:

  • Remember that the messenger is probably doing their best and delivering this message is not easy for them. Thank them for telling you. 
  • Acknowledge what you heard and seek to understand the message; be curious. Ask questions about the impacts on you, timing, rationale for the message, and what support is available. 
  • Take time to process the message before reacting. It is easier to make a statement later than to deal with the regret and damage caused by making an impulsive comment. 
  • Consider your options. We usually have options and can make choices. In this case, the options may be limited, so identify as many as possible and carefully consider them.
  • Seek support from others. Use them to help vent your emotions (sad, mad, fearful, anxious, etc.). Ask them for the help you need. Look for resources such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), your network of colleagues, your healthcare provider, a job assistance program, or unemployment benefits. 
  • Identify your strengths and past experiences that you can draw on and apply in this situation. Don’t forget about taking an inventory of what you have at your disposal—don’t just focus on what may have been taken away.
  • Consider ways to reframe the news and this experience: What new opportunities does this offer? What can you learn from it?
  • Develop a plan of action. To paraphrase Victor Frankl … you may not be in control of the situation, but you have control over how you respond to it. Even if a fully developed plan can’t be developed at this point, what are the next 2-3 steps that will help you move forward in a productive way?

What has been your experience? Are you observing an increase in delivering or receiving unpleasant messages? What has been useful for you to deliver or receive unpleasant news? I’m interested in your thoughts, so please leave your comments.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels


© 2020, John L. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.

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1 Comment

  1. Great Article.

    I had to let someone go once it was my very first time having to do this as a new manager.

    I prepared however, it haunted me for days leading up to letting the person go, I even became physically ill.

    On the day of it was so awkward, I had the support of my HR partner which helped me a lot but I hated it.

    I felt much better when it was all over.

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