JEM Management Training

The art of breaking bad news

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One of the things many managers dread is breaking bad news. It often leads to having difficult conversations.It might be that they’re not getting the promotion they hoped for or that performance review is not as good as they expect. Likewise, you might need to have difficult conversations with clients too. It may be that you can’t change the scope of the project at this late stage or there’s an extra cost involved in doing so.

When you have to have difficult conversations at work or break bad news, it pays to be prepared as much as possible. This might entail:

  • Having all the facts with you
  • Understanding the rationale behind a decision
  • Thinking about the best way to deliver your message

Here are some guidelines that will help you manage difficult conversations.

Be Direct. When it is time to start the difficult conversation, don’t beat around the bush asking how their day is going or trying to soften your message. Tell them what the issue is or what you’d like to discuss. Eg “I want to discuss the promotion you were hoping for”.

Introduce a warning shot. A warning shot sets the scene and allows the receiver to ready themselves for a shock eg. “I have some bad news” or “It’s not the outcome you were hoping for”

Explain the reasoning/rationale. At this stage the person may react negatively so be prepared for them to vent, and acknowledge their feelings or situation which will help de-escalate the situation. If they’re emotional, they probably won’t listen very well. You may also want to help them pay attention by asking “Would you like me to explain/talk you through the reasons?”

Listen. The next stage is to allow them time to air their views. It may be that they have other information that you were unaware of. Make them feel heard even if you can’t change the situation.

Apologise. Upset people often respond well to apologies and remember you’re only apologizing for something neutral like “I’m sorry it’s not better news” “I’m sorry the outcome is not ideal for you” “I’m sorry I can’t help you more”

Next steps. In order to get out of the problem and into a solution, focus on the future. Where do we go from here? What can the person do? What will you do next?

Following this process will help keep the conversation on track and increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.

For more information or Difficult conversations training please contact or call us on 1300 859 



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JEM Management Training

JEM Management Training designs and delivers flexible, in-house management training courses to help  organisations in Perth engage their staff fully in the workplace.

As time is often limited, JEM Training offers flexible half-day management training courses which focus on a specific area of management expertise. These short courses build upon each other over a period of time, chosen by you, to provide ongoing management development.

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