Communicating Sensitive Messages

Delivering a sensitive message can be a very daunting task. That is why breaking up in a text message or paying someone to sack your employees virtually as shown in the film ‘Up in the Air’ seem to be tempting ways to deal efficiently with an issue and avoid confrontation.  These are, however, hardly the most appropriate ways to communicate sensitive messages and are very likely to weaken or even destroy the relationship – be it personal or professional.  In the case of a virtual break up this might be what exactly you are aiming for but in a professional context you should think twice about how you approach your employees, clients or business partners with bad news or delicate matters.

In addition to any personal reservations or moral conflicts you might have, the way you communicate sensitive messages can seriously affect your business. A study on employee satisfaction (Greenberg, 1990, PsycNET – Display Record) showed that the way in which temporary cuts in salary were announced to factory workers had significant impact on their working morale.  In one subsidiary workers were informed in detail about why the cuts were necessary, whereas in another management just briefly announced the cuts at the end of a meeting. In both subsidiaries more material than usual disappeared after the news. However, in the second subsidiary material theft soared.

So what is a ‘good’ way to deliver bad news? The best way to communicate sensitive messages is face-to-face in a personal meeting. Not only do you show your employee or colleague that they and what you have to tell them are important enough to deserve some of your valuable time. It also gives you, as the bearer of bad news, the chance to show empathy and respond to their reactions and concerns in appropriate ways.

1. Preparation is key

  • Firstly, timing can be crucial.  Although there might never be a good time for bad news, taking into account potential events in your employee’s or colleague’s life such as an important presentation or client meeting, shows respect and consideration for the receiver of bad news. Also, think about when you schedule the meeting. If the other person suspects that you have called the meeting to give bad news, it could give them unnecessarily prolonged emotional distress when the meeting is set up far in advance.
  • People react differently to bad news.  Be ready for potential emotional outbursts and think about ways of dealing with anger or distress. It can be helpful to visualise a worst case scenario and possible solutions for defusing the situation beforehand.
  • Plan enough time for the meeting.  You do not want to have to send an upset employee or colleague away, because your lunch appointment is already waiting for you or the meeting room is required by someone else.

2. Be mindful of the language you use.  Choose language that is straightforward and easy to understand and do not beat around the bush.  Avoid hollow expressions and spare your listener from clichés such as ‘See it as an exciting challenge or a new opportunity’ when announcing very bad news like redundancy. Try to put yourself in their shoes and talk to them as you would like to be spoken to.

3. Be honest and open and try to offer sound advice or support. If you do not feel capable or do not consider yourself the appropriate person to do so, think of someone who might be able to help.

4. Follow up on your employee’s or colleague’s well-being, especially if they took the news badly.  Give them some time to deal with the issue at hand and then check whether they would like further discussion or clarification.

In a nutshell, communicating sensitive messages will never be easy or pleasant.  However, following a few simple steps can help you to maintain a healthy relationship with your employee or colleague and help them to process the message.

About The Author:

Cathy Wellings is Head of Communication Skills at Communicaid a communication skills consultancy offering business communication skills training.

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