Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

This is a guest post by Jeremy Statton, M.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. He is also a blogger and active on Twitter and Facebook. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

We’ve all heard someone say, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” We have sayings like this because delivering bad news is a difficult job. Unfortunately telling people hard things is unavoidable. Bad news is not only part of life, it is part of leadership.

A Businessman Firing a Colleague - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/nullplus, Image #10081269

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/nullplus

For example,

  • If you are an employer, you might need to tell someone that their position is being eliminated.
  • If you are a company, you might need to tell your customers that there is a defect with your product.
  • If you are a parent, you might need to tell your high school senior that the family is moving in the middle of the school year.

Training programs for leaders tend to focus on managing people and resources and for good reason. However, telling people things they do not want to hear is an important part of leadership as well.

Based on my experience as an orthopedic surgeon, here are some of the things I have learned about sharing bad news with others.

  1. Be personal. Do the dirty work yourself and in-person when possible. People always do better when they receive bad news from a person instead of a computer or a cell phone. Sometimes we are afraid of dealing with conflict, but if you try to get out the “easy” way, people are more likely to be upset.
  2. Be direct. It always helps to just lay the cards on the table. Get to the critical information without too much delay. Once you try to start explaining away things, people get the sense something is up. It is easier on everybody to get down to business. You need to get to your destination without taking the scenic route.
  3. Be succinct. Once you are direct and honest, do not elaborate on the issue longer than is necessary. Be available to answer pertinent questions, but do not feel that you have to make a long defense or try to explain things over and over again.
  4. Be honest. Always tell the truth. This applies to every aspect of life, but for some reason when we are giving people bad news we try to wiggle around the truth. Even though it may be difficult at the time, honesty is always the best option. If people find out that you lied to them later on, it will only make things worse.
  5. Be kind. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what it would be like for you to receive the same news you are about to give. This will make it easier for you to say things in a compassionate, considerate way. How you interact with people, instead of the specific words you say, may be  the thing they remember most about your conversation.
  6. Be patient. I have learned this one the hard way in my marriage. Anytime I discuss something difficult with my wife, it is important to give her time to evaluate the difficult information. Expecting an immediate response from someone may be just as hard on them as hearing the bad news.

To be effective leaders, we must develop the ability to deliver bad news with grace and honesty. These six guidelines will help us do so.

Question: What have you learned about sharing bad news with others? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
Want to launch your own blog or upgrade to self-hosted WordPress? Watch my free, twenty-minute screencast. I show you exactly how to do it. You don’t need any technical knowledge. Click here to get started.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • http://www.leahadams.org Leah Adams

    Great thoughts!!! I am a very direct person who just says what needs to be said and I often forget to tell the truth IN LOVE. I have found that if I pray and ask the Lord to give me the words to say as well as ask Him to orchestrate everything concerning breaking difficult news, it really goes much better. He is very willing to go before us and prepare the way if we will acknowledge that we need Him to do so.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      Prayer is a definitely an important part of doing anything difficult. Thanks for reminding all of us of that.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I think that is the goal: speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). For me, that takes the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to do BOTH without divine assistance.

    • http://LookingForPurpose.com Dylan Dodson

      So true!

    • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

      True!

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      Leah! Being a direct person is a real gift. I love to be direct person at all times.

  • http://twitter.com/Cakeooh Keiko Willhite

    I find myself getting stuck on #3. I am quite the babbler…

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      Thanks for pointing out that some people may be better at certain aspects of this than others. For me being kind is the hardest. Sometimes I can be too blunt.

    • http://stevencribbs.com Steven Cribbs

      Being succinct can be tough. I tend to want to find ways to make everyone feel good about the situation right then – and, in the process, I can babble on to the detriment of the conversation.

      • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

        Me too. The stuff I add isn’t always beneficial to the conversation either.

    • http://changememe.com/ Louise McGregor

      That’s always a tough one for me as well.

      I used to very rationally assemble all the reasons for something, and then it would take ages to defend every reason and the discussion would go on and on.

      I’ve learnt to use the primary strategic reason, stick to that, and not get side-tracked by the other person’s arguments – however wrong those arguments might be and however much the temptation might be there to defend against that argument.

      • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

        “I used to very rationally assemble all the reasons for something, and then it would take ages to defend every reason and the discussion would go on and on.” — I completely agree with you in this point. Thanks Louise!

    • Joe Lalonde

      I’m quite a babbler too! I’m trying to work on it.

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    Sharing bad news with others must be done with utmost care and appropriate body language. It is important for us to remain calm at all times while communicating the message. We speak more with our body that with our words. Most importantly, I feel that bad news must be conveyed without delay.

    • http://www.leahadams.org Leah Adams

      How true it is that our body language doesn’t just speak…it shouts! Great reminder, Uma.

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    That’s true Jeremy! Prayer gives us the necessary discernment.

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    I think empathy will help us to learn kindness in such situations.

  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    You are welcome Leah!
    Unfortunately we neglect to concentrate on our body language.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      Body language is important. A strategy I use with my patients is to sit down when we talk. There was a study that showed that people get the sense you spent more time with them simply by sitting down.

      • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

        Agreed!

      • TNeal

        That’s interesting. I can see how that would be true though. If I sit down, sitting suggests I’m in no hurry to leave.

        • http://stevencribbs.com Steven Cribbs

          I can see that too. Sitting down tends to say that this is an important conversation – giving the impression that you are not going to run off before the conversation is done. I think it also helps the person bringing the conversation in mentally choosing to set aside the time and to engage the conversation.

  • Pingback: Don’t Shoot the Messenger | Jeremy Statton's Confessions of a Legalist

  • eki anjangsari

    its great and helpfull tips. sometimes im still on stuck with it, but time for change it now.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      Go on Eki! Better now than later.

  • wife of a legalist

    For some reason, it always makes me feel better when the person giving the bad news says “I’m sorry”. It may be an issue that is totally out of the messengers control and is not their fault. Maybe this is a girl thing? It seems to help me hear this more than my husband.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      Saying I am sorry is always good. I don’t use sorry as a chance to defend myself, I just say I am sorry that such and such happen and leave it at that.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      I always say this. It isn’t contrived. It just seems like the normal thing you would say when you are delivering bad news. (I’ve even sat and cried with people. Please don’t tell anyone. It doesn’t seem very CEO-ish.)

      • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

        How do you feel about hugs? I have done this form time to time too, but you could possibly get in trouble for a hug.

        • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

          I think it totally depends on the situation and your relationship to that person. It shouldn’t feel contrived.

      • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

        That’s really servant leadership Mike! I admire you.

    • Joe Lalonde

      I think “I’m sorry” is a good thing to use, but only if you mean it. If it comes off as just an expression, it could do more damage.

  • Karl Mealor

    Galatians 4:16 Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?

    Another thought: With bad news, sooner is better than later. You can’t risk bad news coming “through the grapevine”.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      I agree that it is important to try to always make sure that you are the one who tells the person.

    • http://stevencribbs.com Steven Cribbs

      Sooner rather than later helps to reduce ‘festering’ and helps people to move towards resolution quicker – or at least to move on with life sooner.

      • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

        Very true.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      Agreed Karl! When bad news comes “through the grapevine”, it will have greater damaging effects.

  • http://www.irunurun.com Travis Dommert

    I was also taught to always fire a ‘warning shot’, such as “Bob, I have some bad news.” This helps prep the recipient and minimize shock. Some people love surprises, but rarely when the news is not good.

    • TNeal

      Good point! My wife often says, “I’ve got good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” I always want to hear the bad news first. No need for long drawn out avoidance or big surprises.

      • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

        Me, too. I also like to end with the good news! Last year about this time, Gail said to me, “I have good news and bad news, which one do you want to hear first?”

        I said (as usual), “Give me the bad news first.”

        She said, “We just heard from our tax accountant. It’s not what you were expecting. I’m sorry.”

        My heart sank. I said, “So how much do we owe?”

        She said, “That’s the good news, silly. We are getting a refund!”

        • Joe Lalonde

          Thanks for the chuckle Mike!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FJRLITL5IEFHDDFURAESLXOOZ4 Jim Whitaker

    This is a great post. I work in an industry that just about all of my conversations are with people are not happy or in some cases are devastating and I sometimes have to deliver bad news. I have found that it always helps when you are personal, but at the same time you have to explain all the things that you have done to get to the point you are. People accept bad news better when you explain how you got there. I agree with the direct part. I usually get all the information out quickly and in short statements and then expound as questions are asked by the other person. Honesty is a no brainer, especially in my work which is highly regulated to begin with. I always try to be kind and patient, even when the other party becomes rude or belligerent. Then I remind myself that I have done all I can do and that I cannot let this situation effect me emotionally. I can control the way I deal with the other persons actions, but I cannot control them. Focus on what I can control and try to find common ground with the other person as we discuss the bad news. Thanks for the guest post. Really enjoyed it.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      It really helps me to compose a set of “talking points,” leaving nothing to chance. I don’t read from these, but I have them in front of me. I go over them several times before the meeting. I want to look the other person directly in the eye.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FJRLITL5IEFHDDFURAESLXOOZ4 Jim Whitaker

        Good point. When I am having these conversations I had log in my discussions so I usually list out all the things that the person needs to know that was done and review them with them. This way I have all the info I need in front of me to reveiw. It also helps so that if the person gets upset or emotional I don’t lose the focus on the conversation and miss something that I should say.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      True Jim! We cannot allow the situation to effect us emotionally.

  • http://BrandedbyTheOne.com Alan Mowbray

    Great piece!
    I am a big fan of honor.
    To me, this article is a road map to honoring others in a business/personal situation.
    Good job yourself at being personal, direct, succinct, honest, kind, and patient.
    This article is kind of a Fruits of the Spirit for the messenger…
    …but I digress.
    Thanks for the free leadership training.

    • http://stevencribbs.com Steven Cribbs

      Great word – honor. That concept seems to be something that is easily lost on people these days. But, to treat people with honor can be a truly powerful thing. Plus, it then honors the one who created that person.

      • http://BrandedbyTheOne.com Alan Mowbray

        Exactly!
        Honor works every time.
        No exceptions.

  • Jennifer

    Great advice! I tend to over explain because I feel bad therefore, I’m probably doing more harm then good.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      I think we can definitely try to compensate for our own bad feelings through talking too much or not being honest. I think one of the keys to that is being kind and empathetic, asking yourself what you would want to hear.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      I get that. We need to draw the line not to go overboard

  • Anonymous

    I made the mistake the other day of trying to avoid number 1. I did so by sending an e-mail. Big mistake! I failed to remember that the personal aspect of the conversation is actually a help to the situation.

    You’re right. Sharing it personally is the way to go.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      The other thing that doing it in person helps you with is seeing the person’s reaction and being able to respond to it. If you send an email more likely that not you will be checking you inbox every 5 minutes waiting for their response. Not only will it torture them, but also torture you.

      • http://markjmartin.com Mark Martin

        Exactly. The feedback you get from the other person when talking face-to-face lets you know how they are taking it.

        Thanks for the post!

        • http://stevencribbs.com Steven Cribbs

          And it also helps the other person to know how you are bringing the news – e.g. is the news coming in a cold way, is it being brought with compassion, etc…

  • Anonymous

    E-mails are so insufficient for conversations that could be hard to take. No one can read your tone in an e-mail.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      So true. I know of several situations where a company terminated an employee by email or an overnight letter. So lame.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      That’s true Mark! email can replace personal conversation

    • Joe Lalonde

      I agree. I’ve read plenty of emails and online communications that could be taken the wrong way. I’ve even sent a few myself!

    • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

      FaceBook really fails here as well.

      • http://markjmartin.com Mark Martin

        So true!

        • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

          It’s crazy! I see so many people saying things on FaceBook that they’d never (I hope…) say face to face. FaceBook has virtually eliminated the boundaries of courtesy and politeness.

  • Sjohnston

    as a leader, the principle I see most often violated is doing it in person. I have seen texts, emails and phone calls greatly misused in this respect. I have learned to coach those I lead to communicate face-to-face. It just gives value to the person receiving the bad news. Great post!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Absolutely. I think bad news should ALWAYS be communicated face-to-face unless it just isn’t possible. Next best is a phone call.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      Waiting for someone to send you an email after giving them bad news over email is a horrible way to spend your day.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      Fcae to face. I value that Johnston

  • TNeal

    “Bad news is not only part of life, it is part of leadership.” This line caught my attention. Reality is, if you’re in leadership, you will deliver bad news. I appreciate the guidelines for delivering bad news. Be direct and be honest are the best way to go but rarely easy. I know as a recipient of bad news I would rather the messenger cut to the chase and give me the truth. If you give me the truth when it’s bad news, then I can trust you when it’s good.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      That’s a great perspective.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      As always, leadership is a tough call to lead on. I agree with you TNeal

  • Angela Buchanan

    Great article. I would also add be prompt – don’t delay having the challenging conversation. Especially if you are needing to address a specific situation, putting too much time between the event and the conversation is not helpful for you or the person you are speaking with.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      Whenever I had to do something in front of the entire class at school I would always volunteer to go first. I could not stand the waiting game. Although you need to be a good judge of timing, I agree that it is nice to get it done as soon as you can.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      Promptness …. which we find very rarely these days.

  • http://twitter.com/ds_heck David

    Thank you Michael. Looking someone in the eye, being honest, and letting them see just how much it’s costing you to be honest, no matter how good or bad the news is, has always meant the most to myself, whether receiving the bad news, or having to give it. Best insight I’ve read on this in a very long time.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      David as you say, being honest is tough. I agree with you.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7GQO7USPKCWABU3WVQDIOMZLNE Dawn

    Saw this link on the Christian Leadership of the page I am soooo glad this has been started here on facebook. Hopefully will start true identity understanding of who we are in Christ power and change our nations fortitude to be under the Lordship of Christ whom the Father sent and is the only authorized sceptre of Righteousness which we stand at all.

  • http://twitter.com/BrettVaden Brett Vaden

    What often blocks me from telling bad news is my own insecurity and fear of rejection; I fear people will not only dislike what I have to say, but that they will dislike (or hate) me as well. Of course, this all boils down to narcissism. Love, however, means that I put my own fears aside for the sake of the other person’s good–which, in this case, is news they need to hear directly, honestly, and kindly.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      Fear is tough. It tells us all kinds of things that are not true and then we can make bad decisions. I agree that love is the antidote. In particular the perfect love of God.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Well put. Thanks.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      For love over comes all kind of fear and there is no fear in perfect love towards God.

  • http://twitter.com/kpalmer71 Kerry Palmer

    These suggestions are very good — thank you for sharing them. I find this to be the most difficult part of my job!

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Me, too. God forbid that it would ever get easy!

      • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

        But one day, it will all be unnecessary. I can’t wait for that day, and the One it brings, to get here!

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      As you rightly say, I think it’s a delicate and sensitive issue to handle.

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy’s Confessions

      Because it is so difficult is a reason that it should be done well.

  • http://www.marketinginprogress.com Brett Duncan

    Good, basic tips.

    If you think of it from the perspective of the recipient, we all (eventually) appreciate the succinct breaking of the news. Dragging it out is not only uncomfortable, but also churns up disrespect and anger.

    I’ve found the key is to simply accept there is no easy way, but there is a quick and kind way. So that’s the best option.

    bd
    @bdunc1

    • http://www.jeremysconfessions.com Jeremy@confessionsofalegalist

      like pulling off a band-aid?

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      Ya! Dragging can be uncomfortable and a great spoiler too.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve learned some of these things through experience.

  • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    And if you wish to shoot the messenger, aim high, i.e., above the neck, lest the seasoned messenger wear Kevlar.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      LOL:) !!!

  • Rsr777

    Number 6…True and wise….most people need time to process…pressure for immediate response can only lead to bitterness for both people involved.

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      Yup! It should be natural.

  • http://www.jacobsenfam.blogspot.com Ron Jacobsen

    I printed on off for myslef and then one for my wife. I think this will be our summer project together. Thanks Michael!

    • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

      Go on Ron! You will be learning something out of this!

  • Joe Lalonde

    Those are some great points to think about when delivering the bad news.

  • Cltheady

    when I know that honesty is going to cause people pain it is very hard for me to be 100% truthful. I am glad I read this article.

  • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

    Great thoughts! As a minister, these points are crucial! So often, I’m in the gunsights simply because of my position at the church I serve.

  • Don

    All your guidelines are applicable. Yes even honesty, even that hurts at times. We need to always put ourselves in someone elses shoes to know just how to handle a situation. Then repent for not doing what was needed. I am guilty and I am sure most people are. God keeps working on me and together we will arrive. Life has it’s hardships but they are our training grounds, if we are honest with ourselves we will go forward. To not be honest keeps us in the same groove until we figure it out and then repent and go forward. It really is simplew but mankind makes it harder then is necessary. Leadership comes from a broken heart and lack of whatever that stirs up the man inside to do better without killing someone in the meantime. Love you message.

  • http://kkbaidoo.blogspot.com/ K.K.

    It has always been kind of difficult for me but I try although not always good.

  • http://kkbaidoo.blogspot.com/ K.K.

    Its always a difficult thing for me but God has help me through all these years. I know the truth hurts but works out.

  • Anonymous

    When people need to tell me news that I don’t want to hear, it annoys me that I am the last one to hear it. My 17-year old daughter was somehow able to get a very large tattoo on the back of her shoulder without me knowing about it. When she finally confessed it to me, yes, I felt angry, and like I was a bad mother because it happened; but I also felt betrayed, hurt and embarrassed. I could imagine her in PE classes, dressing down, and ‘everyone’ seeing it, forming opinions of both my daughter and myself; feeling sorry for me. The parents of her friends, plus my other daughter knew about it, but didn’t tell me. I feel that if you have news for someone that they won’t like, you should be brave and tell them as soon as possible, so they can deal with it better. It shows respect and compassion for the other person.

  • http://www.inteliwise.com VirtualAgent

    I agree, the best way to deal with giving out bad news, is just be direct about it. Don’t dilly dally about it, and just be honest about the situation and the circumstances of the news. It’s not advisable to be overly emotional about it as well, but don’t be crass about it.

  • Jill K

    Late I know, but I just read this and need to say that leaders should not only be able to deliver the message w/ the skills listed they also need to be able to hear the bad news with grace.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.parks.14289 Michael Parks

    It’s great that a physician, especially an ORS addresses the additional aspects of being direct while caring for the individual to whom the direct news is given. Physicians are trained to be brutally direct, caring direct, not so much.