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How to Deliver Bad News

Posted on September 20, 2019 by Camp Systems

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A popular way to deliver bad news is the “Sandwich Approach,” and frankly, we’ve found that it doesn’t work.

If you’re not familiar with the Sandwich Approach, it goes like this. You start off by saying something positive (bread). Then you say something negative (meat) and end on a positive note (bread).

In the Harvard Business Review (HBR), organizational psychologist and consultant Roger Schwartz wrote “the Sandwich Approach undermines your feedback.” Why? Most people only want to hear and focus on the bad news when you have it. Secondly, it’s not balanced. When giving positive feedback, do you add negative feedback? Thirdly, delaying bad news increases your anxiety.

We want to add that the Sandwich Effect is overused and undermines trust. The consequence is that every time you say something positive to a person, their radar is up and they’re waiting for bad news. In most cases, they are suspicious and five steps ahead of you thinking, “Uh, oh… what bomb will they drop after this?”

How do you start a conversation about bad news?

The Camp Approach starts with giving the other person the right to say No at the starting line.

Step 1 – Create Safety by Nurturing

Before you give any bad news, ask the other person if they want to hear the bad news. You can begin with:

“I’m afraid I have some disappointing news to deliver.”

Give them the option to say, “No, I don’t want to hear this now.” This works because giving the other person permission to say No lowers the intensity of emotions. It also gives them some control because they can always say No to your request. Surprisingly, we’ve found that after you ask permission, people expect to hear something much worse than what you’re going to say.

It’s also important to nurture through your tone, voice, and actions. You may want to practice in a mirror or record yourself to make sure that you speak slower and have a lower tone of voice. Also, avoid jerky body movements, don’t be stiff, and don’t tower over them. It’s important to look relaxed and calm.

In our many years of experience, we have never heard someone say, “No, don’t tell me the bad news.”

Step 2 – Tell Your Story of the Current Situation

Start with “Here’s what we expected…” or “Here’s what we set out to achieve…”

Then follow with “Here’s what we observed/learned/discovered…” or “Here’s what happened…”

Next, say “The consequence/impact/result is…”

Step 3 – Let Them Acknowledge or Respond

Here you must Pause. That means stop talking.

Pausing gives the other person time to absorb what you’ve said.

Let them respond. Turn off all your ideas and listen to what they say.

The other person may come back with a version of these:

“That stinks. Why did you…?” Then it’s time for you to accept responsibility if you are at fault. It’s important to not talk about all you’ve done wrong before they speak. Your guilt may be much greater than what they see. Moreover, you don’t want to say too much and present more problems.

Or “That stinks. I know that I didn’t help this by…” Here the other person accepts responsibility.

Or, “That stinks, what are you going to do about it?”

The hardest part is not talking until they respond. Compulsive talking is a common problem that we must control. It stems from our neediness and having to show everyone that we know it all.

Step 4 – Paint a Vision of a Better Future

Here you want to paint a picture of how their world can change for the better. Remember, no vision means no decision. Follow this path of conversation and these four steps.

“Here’s what we are doing to address/correct this” or “Here are the steps we’re taking to address/correct this.” (Notice that this is in the present tense, not future tense.)

“Once addressed, here’s what we expect….”

“If my expectations are met, here’s the impact/consequences…”

“If my expectations are not met, here’s the impact/consequences, and here is the course of action we will then take.”

Step 5 – Let Them Acknowledge or Respond to Your Vision

Pause. Stop Talking.

Listen. If they have something that improves your forward action, change your plan.

Ask if they have any questions or anything to add.

Then, take action based on this discussion.

Tying It All Together

You can see how this approach differs from the Sandwich Approach. By asking permission, you give the other person the right to veto. This is critical. The right to say No gives the other person a sense of control versus having lousy news dumped on them.

When the conversation is over, it’s always possible that the person not getting the salary increase will quit. Your partner may break up with you. You may get fired. Odds are that your child will have a tantrum. That’s life.

Our point is that when you take ownership of delivering bad news, then you have the best chance of influencing the next step. You will be viewed as being responsible. If you pretend that nothing happened and avoid delivering bad news, the next steps could be out of your control and you’ll have no influence.

Click to find out more about our CAMP Coaching.

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