Doctors sometimes have to share bad news with their patients. When it’s really bad – the patient has a terminal illness, or a loved one has died – it can be a very difficult conversation. In his book, “How to Break Bad News: A Guide for Health Care Professionals”, Dr. Robert Buckman outlined a process to help physicians do a better job.

As a leader in your organization, you may never be challenged with sharing that kind of life-altering news with your employees. However, when you do have bad news, Dr. Buckman’s approach can help you communicate more effectively.

Make a plan, set the scene, and plan for two-way communication

Good planning can make a huge difference in how employees react to bad news – and whether or not they will be motivated to help your organization through it.

  1. Make sure you have all the information. Identify the context around the bad news; industry trends, your organization’s financial situation, or changes in the regulatory environment are some examples. Make sure you have all the facts about the negative news you are sharing, including why it’s happening and when.
  2. Decide who should communicate the bad news. Employees trust their direct supervisors the most, but if the bad news impacts a large group of employees it is better coming from the CEO or other senior leader.
  3. Rehearse what you will say. Practicing your part of the conversation will help you deliver bad news clearly, give you time to deal with your own emotions, and increase your self-confidence and skill.
  4. Create the right environment. A comfortable, familiar location is best when you need to communicate bad news. Plan adequate time and prevent interruptions; you don’t want to seem rushed.
  5. Face to face communication is ideal, because it allows you to see immediate reactions and determine where to take the conversation next. If you must use a video or teleconference, plan ahead for two-way communication.

Break the news, check for understanding, and listen

When it’s time to meet with employees, your goal is to make sure they understand the situation clearly.

  1. Be straightforward. Use simple language and avoid technical jargon and euphemisms (“rightsizing”). Get to the point. Don’t minimize the severity of the situation – most bad news has significant impact on employees’ lives.
  2. Be aware of your nonverbal communication, including your tone of voice and facial expressions. Make eye contact when you’re speaking.
  3. Check for understanding, not only by listening to employees’ questions, but through body language, and even silence. If employees don’t understand the situation or the impact, or they’ve got something wrong, correct misinformation clearly. Be prepared to pivot –change your message or your delivery – if employees don’t understand you.
  4. Communicating bad news isn’t all about telling – listening is important, too. As you share bad news with employees, be prepared to respond to feelings as well as communicate facts and timelines. Be prepared for a wide range of reactions, from disbelief to tears to anger; stay calm and do more listening than talking when emotions are high.
  5. Explaining or justifying the bad news only works if it’s adequate, sincere, clear and reasonable. Accept responsibility, on behalf of the organization, for the situation. Apologize if it’s appropriate.

Follow up, provide support and stay engaged

Communicating bad news is a process, not an event. After your initial communication, it’s important to commit to a timeline for follow-up.

  1. Once you’ve communicated bad news, tell employees what the next steps are, for employees and for the organization.
  2. Your employees probably won’t retain everything you say, especially if the news impacts them personally. It’s important to follow up your meeting with written communication.
  3. Tell employees about sources of support to manage the impact of the bad news. Their supervisors, human resources staff, and your employee assistance program are all potential source of support.
  4. You might not have all the answers now. Commit to continuous engagement – one-on-one and through follow-up meetings. Check in with individual employees to see what they understand and how they are feeling.
  5. It’s likely that you’ve known the bad news for a while, and the emotional impact has faded. Remember that employees are hearing it for the first time. Show empathy and acknowledge the human impact.

Dr. Buckman was trained, and highly skilled, in diagnosing and treating illness. He was not an expert in communication, but he learned through observation and practice. As a leader, you are highly skilled in your organization and operations, but may feel less comfortable with your communication skills. Learning from Dr. Buckman’s experience will give you a head start the next time you need to communicate bad news.

Communicating with employees when things are going well is easy – not so much when you must share bad news. But that’s when strong communication skills are most important.