7 steps great bosses take before, during, and after delivering bad news

Conveying bad news is one of the most stressful situations leaders face. Their jitters often lead them into one of two mistakes: either they take an overly harsh approach or they sugarcoat the message.

To find better approaches, Andy Molinsky, a professor of management and psychology at Brandeis University, interviewed more than 40 managers about how they deliver bad news. He wrote about what he learned in a recent article for Inc. magazine. Based on his interviews, here are the steps he recommends for delivering bad news, along with additional advice from leadership experts about difficult conversations.

Before the conversation

1: Clarify your purpose. Set aside time to reflect on why you need to deliver this bad news, including why the decision was made and why you're the appropriate person to explain it in this situation, Molinsky recommends. This period of reflection will help you feel more confident and "justified" during the conversation, he writes. Other experts encourage managers to remember that difficult conversations are necessary for helping employees grow.

2: Outline a script. The most important step is to prepare what you'll say in advance, Molinsky writes. You should also consider how the person might react and prepare responses for each potential outcome.

3: Choose your location carefully. It should be private, which reduces the risk of embarrassment for the person you're speaking with. However, Molinsky notes that managers should also consider their own needs and safety. Timing is another consideration—some experts recommend holding difficult conversations at the end of the day, so employees can leave afterwards and focus on processing their emotions.

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While delivering the news

4: Take extra steps to make the other person comfortable. Choosing a private location is the first step, but managers can do more to build a "psychological safety net," says leadership consultant Deborah Rowland. For example, you might pause more frequently than usual for questions and allow extra time for discussion.

5: Be direct, but compassionate. Get to the point as quickly as possible and leave no possibility of misinterpretation. And while you shouldn't try to suppress your emotions, you should try to regulate them towards a constructive purpose, according to Rowland. In some situations, it might help to think of yourself and the other person as partners trying to solve the same problem, rather than adversaries, says executive coach Monique Valcour.

After delivering the news

6: Avoid negotiating. After hearing the bad news, some employees may try to bargain their way out of the situation or try to debate the decision. Molinsky recommends sticking to your core message, even if things get emotional. 

7: Follow up. If the conversation becomes heated, it might be best to call a time out and continue it later, says executive coach Amy Jen Su. Either way, at the conclusion of the conversation, let the other person know that you're available to answer any questions that come up later. This can help you maintain a positive relationship with the person, she explains (Molinsky, Inc., 1/30).

You're probably an average listener—at best. Here's how to be a better one.

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