Delivering Bad News

Delivering Bad News from Coralstone Training

Delivering Bad News at work from Coralstonetraining

I have just been listening to an item on Radio Five live on my way to see a client in West London. When delivering effective communication skills I am often asked about difficult conversations and how to manage them. Therefore when I heard the proposed subject – I tuned in hard.

“So just how do you deliver bad news? “ asked the interviewer to a north country based GP. And then followed the best piece of reasoned common sense from a seasoned expert I have heard for a long time.  The good doctor herself explained her background: she had worked in numerous GP surgeries and local accident and emergency centres. She then proceeded the share the following with the listeners – the go to phrase that she always used in dire circumstances:

“ There is only one way to tell you this….”

To the point or what?

Her reasoning was that there is no point taking the potential recipient of horrendous news round the houses with detail they can’t take in and allowing them to build up false hope that can’t be delivered. This is precisely when a maelstrom of emotions will kick in at a time of extreme stress that potentially will take years to overcome. The doctor is in a position of power and she does not abuse it. She tells it how it is.

Of course not all news is off the Richter scale of dramatic like these examples but in day-to-day life we have to tell others things we don’t want to say.

The CBI estimates that workplace conflict costs UK business £33 billion per year, taking up 20% of leadership time and potentially losing up to 370 million working days.

It is possible and potentially kinder to take the assertive route to what may seem the unpalatable or unwanted news. This is not the time to beat around the bush. So often the person who is delivering the bad news that for example redundancies will take place, an order has been lost, the project is running is more worried about having to deliver the message than who is on the receiving end of it. As with any form of communication your emotions go on the back boiler and the only person or people that matter are the ones listening to what you have to say.  Get it right and you win trust and respect as a leader and communicator, get it wrong and it could prove costly emotional, productively and financially.

The Doctor in the radio interview told the listeners something that has really resonated with me and people I have talked to since. The two things people can’t handle in life are power and uncertainty. When you are in the workplace with any position of authority don’t abuse it and then add uncertainly into the mix. Moving the goal posts, being unpredictable is not an appealing trait in a work colleague.  A sure recipe for disgruntled and future job-hunting employees.

I remember working for a publishing house then based in central London and being told by the managing director that we would definitely not be moving. Oh good we all thought – carry on as usual. Phew.

The next month he called us all in to tell us we would be relocating to deepest Middlesex. “Where’s that?”, thought many of us and “where is the exit?”,  thought the rest.

Disbelief, anger and distrust resulted in a massive loss of staff and institutional knowledge to other companies and competitors and resentment from those left behind. All at a financial and reputational cost to the organisation.

So what needs to be done to avoid this?

It is not all simply about telling them how it is. Like all forms of communication there are other aspects to this you can learn.

In the meantime, here are a few pointers to help you with delivering bad news:

Be prepared.

  • With whatever little time you have preparation is still all. Rehearse it is just in your heard. Get your mind into gear. Keep your own motions in check.
  • Plan the conversation before hand. Think of the words you will use and the impact they will have on the receiver. Role-play it if necessary with a colleague. Check the word being used and err on the side of fact and avoid being overly emotional.


  • Act swiftly – I recently witnessed a senior leader having to tell colleagues that the chief executive had died. The news was delivered literally hours after the news came through to ensure before body language of the senior team didn’t give gave the game away through furtive glances, built up fear and panic. There was initial panic but that was soon superseded by comfort and solutions. A dire situation that was not exerbated by needless delay and uncertainty.

Show empathy

  • Acknowledge the person’s emotions appropriately. Be attentive and supportive, but don’t say “I know how you feel,” because you don’t. How about acknowledgement in the form of, “This is a terrible shock to you.”


  • Listen to what they have to say and paraphrase what you hear back to them. This shows you are really engaging and listening and connecting. It gives them a chance to hear back what they have said correct you if you are wrong or even correct themselves and retune their thoughts and opinions.

Keep calm.

  • So you have just dropped a big one on the listener, which may well leave them reeling and emotional. If they get emotional or even angry with you is not your job to mirror that behavior. Keep your voice low and acknowledge with assertive statements such as,“I am can hear that you are angry.” Another tip I learnt when dealing with anger – if you are sitting down stay seated even if the recipient comes towards you. Standing up and facing them down will escalate the tension. If you do want to remove yourself tell the person what you are doing, thank them for listening and set an alternative time to continue the conversation.

Of course all this improves with practice – and learning from what you got right and what you could improve on. Becoming an effective communicator comes through self-awareness, awareness of others around you and the right body language and choice of reactions and language. Trying all these techniques out in a safe and controlled environment can be one major step forward in redefining yourself as the better you.

Don’t confuse assertiveness with aggression

Difficult Conversations in the workplace

Don’t confuse assertiveness with aggression

Is assertiveness training the way towards a more harmonious workplace? We can’t avoid difficult conversations – how you handle them is what matters.

Difficult conversations are part of being assertive – we all have to engage in them. It is almost part of growing up. Everyday we can find an opportunity to avoid a difficult conversation, or get into one. Just having to say no to a personal request, change an appointment or change a date for something re-arranged could get pretty tricky if managed badly.

The workplace takes the whole ball game to another level. This is where mistakes can get measured and monetized – this is where getting your point across with the right tone, appropriate manner and meaning really starts to count.

If you handle that client incorrectly, and they walk, it could spell financial disaster and reputations could be seriously damaged.

We’re not just talking about external relationships here – internal conversations matter too. Telling your colleague you are unhappy with their idea is one thing that can test your nerve, giving your boss notice is another.

Whether we like it or not, we need to manage up to our bosses, down to our suppliers and across with our colleagues.

The organization is, above all, social. It is people.

Peter Drucker

In recent years, one way or another, I have had my fair share of difficult conversations. Some I have handled better than others. Some have affected me – others changed me.

This is where assertiveness training comes in to play: the idea of putting yourself in the driving position – the idea of changing yourself.


I wanted to change the world. But I found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” Aldous Huxley

So what are the main tenants of assertiveness?

Assertive is about being confident and direct when communicating. You are open to other people’s views even though they may differ to yours.

You do not blame others when things go wrong.

You give and take compliments and criticism.

And here is the nub. Assertiveness is not aggression, which is a pure determination to get your own way, or the opposite of being passive, which is putting your own needs to one side in favour of others.

It is not the ever-present passive aggressive which is the indirect approach of sly and manipulative behaviour – the avoidance approach.

To simplify: assertiveness is the use of the ‘I’ word over the ‘you’ approach.

It is about positively framing the argument from your own perspective rather than using the word ‘you’ in an accusatory fashion.

So where does assertiveness as a concept originate from?

I first came across assertiveness training 20 years ago when a friend of mine passed on a training manual to me after she had completed a course. This friend has to be one of the best negotiators I have worked with, firm and always fair and a consummate professional in getting information across.

‘Have a close look at this Wendy,’ she said. ‘You will thank me for it.’

The first research in assertiveness can be traced back to the 1940s and work with understanding depressed clients.

Assertiveness and the idea that we should be able to advocate for ourselves without harming the rights of others, and controlling aggressive impulses, can be traced back to the 1960s and the advent of Humanist Psychology.

Civil rights movement psychologists in 70s saw assertiveness as a way of protecting human rights, and by the new millennium this interest in assertiveness had really gathered pace.

By now the application of assertiveness had shifted into schools, higher education and HR departments.

As a trainer and coach with Coralstone, my research and experience has provided me with ample opportunity to sharpen my skills professionally in this area.

I have mediated away days for dysfunctional staff groups, handled staff grievances and coached professionals in and out of jobs and different career paths.

I was brought up and educated in the times when young people, and especially girls, were not encouraged to challenge the status quo, let alone speak of personal success. The first person singular was practically forbidden.

What I’ve learnt is that the ‘I’ word is a powerful, assertive tool, leading us away from the finger-jabbing tone of the ‘you’ word. The first person singular takes a powerful of its own and puts you right where you belong – in charge of yourself.

Here follows 10 examples of powerful statements

‘I’ statements mean you take ownership- you statements may lead to an attack and blame

I find..

I am sorry you feel like that

I wish you had not said that

I don’t understand – can you clarify?

I can see how you might think that

I prefer not to answer that

Where do we differ?

No I am sorry I can’t

I would like to help however I have a

Can I get back to you later?

Writer coach and soft skills trainer, Wendy Smith runs training courses in Effective Communications. Assertiveness and Presentation skills.