12 Phrases You Should Definitely Avoid When Giving Bad News
Saying the wrong thing when explaining budget cuts or layoffs could make you seem uncaring and unprofessional.
“I wish I didn’t have to do this”
Even if you didn’t make the decision behind the bad news, you need to act like the company is unified. Going against your boss could get you in trouble, says Robert Bies, PhD, professor of management at Georgetown University. Plus, emphasizing that you don’t like the decision “comes across as trying to avoid responsibility,” he says. Tough decisions are part of the job, so stay accountable instead of shifting the blame. (Don’t miss these other 6 things you should never say in work e-mails, too.)
Apologizing when sharing bad news might feel natural, but resist the urge. Women, in particular, tend to say “sorry” too often in the workforce (and these 28 things you need to stop apologizing for), says certified business coach Anza Goodbar. “It immediately discredits anything they say after that phrase,” she says. “It is best to be direct and say the news that must be given confidently and compassionately.” When you do need to say “sorry,” use these 3 secrets for an effective apology.
“I feel your pain”
No matter how bad you feel about delivering bad news, it’s worse for the people hearing it. Trying to empathize and claiming you know how they feel just undermines their emotions. “[Managers] don’t want to deal with emotions so they just say ‘I know what you’re going through,’” says Bies. Instead of declaring you relate—even if you think you do—just offer a listening ear and let the person express his or her emotions. Check out these other 10 signs you have incredible empathy.
“This is a horrible situation”
Keep extreme adjectives like “terrible problem” out when sharing bad news, says Cristian Rennella CEO an co-founder of financial product comparison company oMelhorTrato.com. Instead, use statistics and hard numbers to back up your decision, letting your team know what will happen if things don’t turn around—like if you’ll need to make budget cuts or layoffs. The key is to let employees draw their own conclusions about how bad the situation is instead of telling them. “If you compare statistics and conclusions of what will happen if this problem is not fixed, people will take the problem personally and seek solutions,” says Rennella. “The adjectives do nothing but make the staff dizzy.”
“It’s because of this and that and this and that”
Justifying the reasoning behind a tough decision is important. Without hearing any sort of explanation, employees could start forming their own conclusions, assuming the worst, and spreading rumors. When you do share the background, though, don’t over-explain. Share just two explanations for the decision—anything more will just leave more questions. “If you have more than two reasons, it’s like you’re covering up,” says Bies. “You’re throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.” In general, stick with these 10 magic phrases that make anyone trust you instead.
“Well, at least…”
Your news could devastate the listeners, so be prepared for the flood of emotions without trying to sugarcoat what’s happening. Saying, “At least you still have your job” or “At least you still have our team intact” implies you aren’t acknowledging their pain, says Joseph Grenny, founder of leadership training company VitalSmarts. That said, don’t leave a gloom and doom message without giving a silver lining, says Bies. “If they have a sense of hope, they’ll stay motivated,” he says. Offer a solution that offers optimism moving forward. Employees might leave if they think the company is tanking. Learn 10 everyday secrets of optimistic people.
“Always” or “never”
Never make an absolute statement, like how an employee never hands in work on time or leaves typos in presentations every time, says Grenny. “They’re usually untrue and only cause people to search for all the exceptions, which immediately discredits your message,” he says. Similarly, you can’t guarantee things like “this is the last round of layoffs,” says Bies. You never know what will happen in the future, so it’s a promise you can’t necessarily keep. Here are 9 more things you should never say to your boss.
“This is harder for me than it is for you”
There’s no denying it’s hard to give bad news—you feel guilty, gloomy, and a whole range of complicated emotions. But that’s nothing compared to the people hearing they’re being laid off or forced into a position they didn’t want. Emphasizing how bad you feel “is a poor way to try to ease your guilty conscious for delivering bad news,” says Stan Kimer, president of Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer.
“I’ve told you everything I know”
For liability reasons, you sometimes can’t share every detail you know—even if you want to. It’s fine to withhold information that you’ve been asked not to tell, but don’t pretend you’re in the dark. “There’s a fine line between honesty and disclosure,” says Bies. Be truthful and tell your coworkers you’ve given all the information you can. If you think they deserve more details, push your superiors to give you the green light.
“Don’t be so upset”
Dealing with heightened emotions can be difficult and uncomfortable, but never try to shut someone down. Telling a person how to think and feel will only escalate the anger, says Bies. Instead, just be a good listener and keep your voice monotone. “Don’t raise or lower your voice,” says Bies. “People will react to the emotion they feel or see.” If you think a one-on-one meeting might get heated (when you’re firing someone, for instance), keep the anger at bay by bringing someone in the room with you as a witness, he says. Find out how to recognize the 9 types of anger.
“It’s not that bad”
The people hearing the bad news are probably going through a whirlwind of emotions, so don’t try to sugarcoat and pretend this isn’t a massive blow to them. Undermining the situation shows a lack of empathy, says Kimer. Use these 6 surprising ways to increase your empathy instead.
“If I were you I would…”
Giving the recipients of the bad news ideas about how to make things better in the future seems like a good idea. “Unfortunately, it does not come off as helpful,” says Grenny, and just feels “presumptuous and patronizing.” Feel free to share your company’s new direction or initiatives, but don’t throw out a bunch of ideas that imply you don’t trust your employees. Don’t miss these 16 easy ways to build trust at work.