Picture the scene, you’re in a railway station and running late. You’ve had a horrific day at work and you’re desperate to get home in time to let the electrician in because you’ve had no power in your kitchen since yesterday morning.

Then, three tinny tones chime to signal a tannoy announcement, swiftly followed by a monotone announcement that blends near seamlessly with the background bustle of the station.

It takes you a couple of seconds to tune in but when you do, you wish you hadn’t.

There’s a three-hour delay caused by someone misbehaving on your train.

Could today get any worse?

Think about this scenario for a moment. Who are you angry with?

The person making the announcement?

The train company?

The person causing the delay?

Everyone?

Rationality doesn’t always rule

We like to think we’re rational. Most of the time we are. But, when disaster strikes it’s easy to let bad news short-circuit our thinking and start blaming whoever is unfortunate enough to be standing in front of us.

Cast your mind back to news footage of mass airport cancellations. Who is the recipient of the combined ire of a mob of twenty or so sunburnt, tourists clad in loud shirts? It certainly isn’t the airport manager or someone with the power to actually change anything. It’s the poor rep who’s just trying to do a day’s work.

Likewise, consider a time when you’ve asked a shop assistant for an item you desperately need right now. When they tell you, eyes downcast, that it’s out of stock where is your frustration directed? If you’re honest about it, there’s probably been at least one occasion where it was pointed towards the unlucky minimum-wage, zero-hours contract worker.

Research agrees, too

Getting cross with the person giving us the bad news, rather than the cause (or just not getting cross at all) is a common behaviour.

Researchers at Harvard University carried out a series of experiments that showed people who hear bad news tend to ascribe ill intent to the messenger. Obviously, this is seldom the case but our brains are wired with a sense-making mechanism that wants to put bad news in some kind of order. The simplest way to do this is to ascribe personal responsibility to whoever gives us the bad news.

In essence, our brains think ‘shooting the messenger’ is a logical thing to do when under stress.

We don’t have good in-built tools to counter this, either. But it’s not all bad news (excuse the pun)…

It’s all about the delivery

Whilst it’s tough to control how we react to bad news. We can control how we give it when we’re the ones in the hot seat. The same Harvard researchers suggested that we can jump the gun on the shoot the messenger instinct of others.

The best way to do this is to preface the message in a way that makes your motives clear. Lead with empathy, rather than taking a more direct approach.

Simple things like saying “I’m sorry to say this…” before you deliver the news can go a long way towards softening the blow or redirecting the recipient’s frustrations. Keep it simple and avoid waffling on with a lengthy preamble because anything that clouds your message could cause confusion and further raise the tension.

The best way to deliver bad news?

There is no perfect ‘bad news’ solution. No one wants to hear it and even the most eloquent softener only reduces the sting a little.

That said, every little helps. Making the effort to deliver bad news thoughtfully and compassionately is the right thing to do. Both for you and your recipient. You’ll be less likely to be on the receiving end of an outburst of frustration and your recipient will be more likely to feel listened to and understood.

You can’t control how someone will react at the best of times, let alone when you’re delivering emotionally charged news. But you can take steps to mitigate that reaction.

If you want to learn, we can help equip you to deliver bad news and manage the difficult conversations that follow.

Let’s have a conversation of our own to get things started.

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Source: Petzer, M (2020). Don’t shoot the messenger: The enigmatic impact of conveying bad news during redundancy situations and how to limit the impact. In: Applied Research Conference 22-23