Softening the blow when you deliver bad news

All business owners need to deliver bad news. You may need to give a reprimand, remind a staff member about policies and procedures, say ‘no’ to a prospective client, inform job applicants that they weren’t successful, or any number of potentially bad news messages.

Bad news is not an absolute: it’s interpreted differently by different people and at different times. It’s the individual aspect of interpretation that’s most important: remember that the recipient is not inside your head and does not know what you’re thinking. The recipient has little idea of the thought process and frustration that’s brought you to the point of delivering the bad news. This means that your bad news will nearly always be received in a context that’s different from the one you anticipated. It also means that the chances of misunderstanding are very high.

These hints are designed for small business owners who have to deliver bad news in writing.

Focus on the relationship first, ahead of this incident

Before you begin to craft a bad news message, think about the relationship you have with the recipient and the relationship you want to have in the long term. If you plan to have an ongoing business relationship, or if there’s any chance you will encounter the recipient in the future, then put the ongoing relationship ahead of this bad news incident. I’m not suggesting that the bad news should be hidden or ignored, just that it needs to be delivered in a way that maintains, or preferably improves, your relationship. Remember that bad news is never neutral. Your recipient will interpret the message as being more harsh and more judgemental than you intend it to be.

Take ownership of the content

When you write your bad news message, write it in a way that shows your relationship to the content and the decision. It’s tempting to deliver bad news in what’s called ‘passive voice’, with the person who made the decision removed from the message. Writing this way may seem to soften the bad news but, by removing the person who made the decision, you make it easier for the recipient to become frustrated and angry.

Don’t leave room for a ‘but’ response, and don’t escalate the situation with your reply

When you have to deliver bad news, it’s best to deliver the news once and then not engage in further discussion. If you state the bad news clearly, give a sound reason, propose a solution or outcome, and write in a way that preserves the relationship, then you’ve done what you can to deliver the news in a way that allows you to move on to other things. When you fail on any of these aspects, your recipient may react with anger and/or frustration (remember that the failure exists in the mind of the recipient, not in your mind).

Make sure the recipient knows of your decision

When you make a decision that impacts on the recipient, make sure they’re aware of your decision before they suspect it. They need to hear the news from you, not from someone else. And they need to know the news before they make themselves feel or look silly by trying to operate on the assumption of business as usual. Remember that being reprimanded and receiving bad news always hurts; you can make the hurt slightly less severe by delivering it personally and quickly.

 Wait before you send

Whenever you need to deliver bad news, allow plenty of time to craft the message and think about its impact. Never, never send a message in anger. If you’re sending the message by email, never press ‘send’ immediately after you’ve finished writing.

Before you send, make a final check that there’s nothing in your message that might unintentionally escalate the situation. Check that your facts are correct and you’re attributing comments/actions to the right person. Check that you’ve got little details right (like dates and people’s names). Check that you’re not breaking the conventions of your medium (for example, don’t write an email in red or all capitals, and don’t forget to include a salutation like ‘Dear Sally’ at the beginning).


This is an excerpt of an article I wrote in November 2016 for ‘In Just 5.’. For the full article, visit