The Scientifically Proven Ways to Deliver Bad News

No one likes hearing bad news, but you can soften the blow with these research-backed strategies.
The Scientifically Proven Ways to Deliver Bad News
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This story appears in the November 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Bad news is hard. It’s hard to get, and it’s hard to give. Whether we’re giving feedback in a one-on-one, telling a client we missed a deadline or having to correct someone’s work, we all dread giving and getting bad news. 

Why? Because humans have what is known as a negativity bias. That means bad news hits us much harder than good news, and stays with us long after. This is the product of evolution. “It is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good,” writes researcher Roy Baumeister. “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but is less urgent with regard to good ones.” 

Related: 6 Tips for Hearing Tough Feedback

In other words, our brains perceive bad news as a threat to survival. It diminishes our sense of security and triggers a fight-or-flight reflex. That’s why people often react so badly to bad news -- and why you have to tread carefully when delivering it. Fortunately, there are pretty simple ways to minimize negative impact. 

1. Stay positive. 

Pixar, the animation studio, has mastered the art of sharing bad news without letting it hamper creativity. As part of their filmmaking process, Pixar’s leaders put their teams through several rounds of in-depth critique sessions. But rather than focusing on work that isn’t up to snuff, team members give critical feedback on the potential areas of improvement. This makes it easier for the creators to accept negative feedback, because it is not viewed as a personal attack on them. There is science behind this. Researchers have found that when people hear negative information presented with a positive tone, they do not react as defensively as they do when they’re given the information with a negative tone.

Related: 5 Tips for Gracefully Accepting Constructive Criticism

2. Focus on the facts. 

Researchers have found that the most effective negative feedback is backed by verifiable reasons for it. The benefit of using facts to deliver bad news is that it makes the information less emotional. For example, if you have to tell your team that your company lost a major client and needs to make budget cuts as a result, to the greatest extent possible identify practical reasons why the client left and outline what is going to change moving forward. This keeps the conversation action-oriented and avoids portraying the news as a personal loss or a betrayal of the client. 

3. Show you care. 

Ask sincere questions about your recipient’s thoughts and feelings toward the bad news. This serves two purposes. One, it makes delivering the news a two-way conversation -- an exchange instead of a frontal attack. Two, it gives you a better understanding of their reaction. That will help you devise a solution to the problem tailored to the person.

4. Help them get better. 

After you deliver bad news, gauge the recipient’s reaction to determine whether they have a growth mindset -- basically, a belief in their own ability to improve. Someone who does will be motivated to better the situation; someone who doesn’t will act defeated. If the person is defeated, encourage them with specific reasons why they can bounce back from what happened, and offer them explicit ideas for doing so. And then check back frequently. They will likely need some time to recover from the initial shock. But if you stick with them, they will come around.

Related: 'What Did You Say?' Is Your Employee Feedback Getting Through?

Delivering bad news doesn’t have to be the bad part of business. When you help people understand that they are safe, heard, and a valued part of a team, you’ll find setbacks and corrections can be valuable opportunities to improve the way you work together.

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