Effective communication tips: how to give bad news?
Clear, direct and empathetic communication is important at any time and especially when giving negative news to employees. All managers, business leaders and HR professionals have the unfortunate task of giving bad news sometimes, be it in relation to appraisals and feedback or in relation to changes to someone’s employment. Alongside your body language, empathy and tone of voice, adopting effective communication techniques can help you make difficult conversations easier for you and your employee and can even cement your professional relationship with them.
Active listening is one of the most useful skill that communicators in any field should possess and master. Unfortunately, this is a skill that most people do not know exists and therefore do not practise. Active listening means shifting the focus of your attention from you to the speaker: when you are listening to them, you are giving them your undivided attention and you are not thinking of what to say in response. You are listening and only listening to understand the other person’s perspective.
Useful tools to help with active listening are asking open questions, which are questions that elicit long answers and start with “How…”, “What…”, “Where…” or “Who…”. Questions that are answered with “yes”/”no” make the other person feel constricted to giving certain answers and do not give them the chance to express their points of view as effectively. If they feel able to speak up and being truly heard and understood, they are less likely to feel resentful and or unfairly treated.
Once they have expressed an important point, to make you understand them and they know they are being listened to and understood, it is helpful to summarise their important points. This does not mean that you agree with them or that you will do as they ask: it only shows to them that you are making an effort to understand them and acknowledge them as individuals. If you do not understand something, ask for clarification or more information in a calm and neutral way without making it sound like an accusation.
For example, one of your employees may make some recurrent mistakes and you need to talk to them about it, say, in an appraisal. Firstly, these reports come from a colleague rather than from your direct experience, it is important that you do some first-hand research on what mistakes they made, the frequency and the consequences of those mistakes to the business and the colleagues. You should also find out what was “the right way” to do the work so that you can explain it to them.
Secondly, during the meeting with your employee, tell them and show them, calmly, about the mistakes without displaying any anger or resentment.Open questions that you may want to ask are: “What do you think caused you to make those mistakes?” and “What could you have done to prevent them?”. If for example they say that they made the mistakes because they felt rushed and did not have time to check back on their work, it would be useful for you to repeat back at them that “they felt they made those mistakes because they felt rushed; they would have identified and corrected those mistakes if they had had more time.” When doing this, your employee will know that you are listening to and connecting with them and want to help them, rather than being angry with them.
A person who feels appreciated will always do more than expected. Even if you are busy, make sure you give your employee they time and attention they need. Make sure you give them the time they need. To them, this conversation may be upsetting or even life changing. How would you feel if you were in their place and this difficult discussion were scheduled for 5 minutes between two important meetings? Would you feel valued and respected?
Treating someone with respect means that they are not lied to or misled. If they realise that they are being lied to, they will lose all respect for you and your company; they may also feel betrayed. Also, if they are or feel being lied to, they may not trust or believe in what you tell them in the future.
Finding solutions and the next steps
Asking someone to come up with solutions, if possible, makes it more likely that they will accept it and implement it. If you decide a solution for them, it may feel like an imposition and they may feel their autonomy is constrained and be resentful. Also, if they find a solution, it is more likely that it is realistic from their perspective and their own reality.
In the example above, a couple of open questions that may be asked are: “What would help you not to make the same mistakes in the future?”, “How would you implement the solution that you have identified?” as well as “What difficulties do you think you will have in making the changes you suggested?”
Allow them to think about any difficulty so that you can work out together how to tackle it in advance and so that they know they can talk to you if something does not work out. Having good and open communication will help you and your company prevent future problems and will help your employees trust you.
Once the difficult conversation is over, if appropriate, make sure you follow it up. If they have decided to implement solutions, meet up with them to ask how they have been going and if they have been experiencing any problems in implementing their solution. Once again, give them your time and make them feel valued and respected as individuals: they will be grateful to you for this.
If and when they have implemented a viable solution and have resolved the issues, make sure you recognise their effort and their success. They probably worked hard at it. Show appreciation for their hard work and for being a great employee. Most people like praise, especially when it is due!
Having difficult conversations with your employees is unfortunately unavoidable. However, you can influence the outcome by using active listening and clear communication techniques with your employees. If they feel listened to and understood by you and if they feel you have taken the time and made the effort to see the situation from their perspective, it is likely that your employee will put up less defensiveness and resistance and that the conversation will be easier for you both. Establishing a rapport of good communication will also help develop trust and mutual respect within your company.
Alexis Faber is an expert in body language, reading people and psychology. Thanks to one-to-one sessions and group workshops tailored to each individual’s needs, she helps people present the best version of themselves to achieve their career goals and realize their potential. She offers unique programmes to help executives, salespeople and professional women. Find out more at https://www.in-sight-edge.com/ or feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org