Finding a good way to break bad news

Emotional intelligence (or ‘emotional quotient’ or EQ) has been a key factor in promotions and hiring in large organisations for quite some time now. With retrenchment rates rising all over the world, what’s become essential is to apply the same EQ while letting an employee go.


To break bad news, a senior official/immediate manager should explain the situation to the employee in person, address his queries/concerns and ask if any help can be provided by the company to smoothen the transition. Grooming maven Dale Carnegie had famously said, “Be compassionate. Ensure that you differentiate the person from the situation.” 


If you are the giver of bad news, always be empathetic to the receiver. The reason you deliver bad news in person, is that you can also understand the verbal and non-verbal cues of the receiver and handle the situation accordingly. It’s human nature to take things personally when receiving bad news, especially in terms of losing a job – people feel it is the end of the road for them because they aren’t good enough. That’s why you need to word it well. Additionally how you say the message is more important than what you actually say.


As a rule of thumb, any bad news which needs to reach the receiver urgently for him/her to take the necessary prompt action, or any news which will not stir up too strong an emotional outburst can be shared over phone/email. For instance, if someone’s family member met with an accident or there’s a big execution glitch in a key client project.

Email works well when there are many recipients of the news – like a project team. But draft it carefully. Sharing any bad news with senior executives should always be done in person. Also news about job retrenchment, pay cuts, etc should not be done over email/phone. In personal life, news about death, rejection of marriage proposals, any chronic illness should ideally be done in person.


“While talking to the receiver, be mindful of your facial expressions and body language. Don’t crack a joke to lighten the mood – it’d be disrespectful and rude,” she says.


Nearly three-quarters (71%) of hiring managers surveyed by Career Builder in 2011 said they valued an employee’s EQ over their IQ. Companies are investing in boosting EQ of employees and that involves how to give and receive bad news. To comfort a colleague who’s been at the receiving end, understand the cause, situation, ask that person if there is anything you can do to solve the problem.

Show genuine empathy. Avoid making the person feel victimised. To boost his/her morale, you can cite instances of other people who were in such situations, and how they overcame it.


If you are the receiver of bad news, keep your emotions in check, and ask questions to clearly understand the news. “Try not to take it personally,” Kamat advises, and adds, “You can check if anything can be done to mend the situation. If not, accept the situation and move on amicably.”


As a giver of bad news...
Prepare for the conversation. The conversation can get heated. Think of all reactions and how to handle your own
Remind yourself why it’s necessary in the first place. No one likes to deliver bad news, but it will be easier if you feel justified in delivering it
Be direct but also compassionate. Don’t sugarcoat bad news but don’t be cold or robotic too
Think about the location. Make sure to deliver the news in a place that is private, minimises embarrassment, and allows the other person to maintain dignity. Think about your own safety as well
Don’t bargain. Don’t allow the conversation to become a negotiation
Source: Psychology Today

As a receiver...
Don’t take it sitting down. Don’t fly off the handle but it is okay to defend yourself, as calmly as possible
Don’t take it personally, but if you feel overwhelmed, practice some breathing exercises then and there. Wait until the meeting concludes to go to the bathroom or outside, and have your reaction away from your supervisor’s eyes
If an answer is required, you don’t have to make any decisions immediately. If you have been blindsided by the decision, you can ask for time
After the conversation, make a plan
Be kind to yourself. Look after your physical and mental health

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