Main Body

Ch. 7: Communicating Good, Neutral and Negative Messages

Questions For Reflection

Before we begin, consider the following questions. Your instructor may ask you to freewrite about one or more of these questions in your learning journal.

  1. Think about the last time that you got disappointing news. How did the sender deliver the message? How did that make you feel? Can you think of a way that you would have preferred to be told?
  2. Have you ever received a rejection from a job or university? Do you remember how that news was communicated? How did it make you feel? How would you have preferred to hear that news?
  3. Think about a time when you broke disappointing news to someone in the workplace or in your personal life. What strategy did you use to break the news? How did it go? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
  4. How do you give bad news in your culture or family? Are you blunt or do you ease into it? Do you give different people bad news in different ways?
  5. Have you ever had to communicate news to a big group of people, like your family or your entire workplace? How did you decide what to put in the message?

In this section, we’ll learn how to deliver different types of news. While you’re reading this section, pay attention to the role that audience analysis plays. How can you communicate messages in a way that meets the reader’s needs?

Delivering Good or Neutral News

Hopefully, most of the communication you will do in the workplace will involve giving neutral or good news. Usually, a direct approach is best. Consider the context in which most people receive workplace communication. Some studies have found that the average worker receives 90 emails per day and sends 40 emails per day. Now, imagine that every time the worker receives an email, they need to spend 1 minute re-reading it because the point of the email was not immediately obvious. That would be 1.5 hours of wasted time! If you factor in lost productivity due to miscommunication, the cost is even higher.

When it comes to neutral or positive messages, usually the best strategy is to get to the point. Make it clear:

  • Why you’re writing.
  • What supporting details the reader needs to know.
  • If the reader needs to do anything.

It’s this last point that business communicators often stumble on. They give the information, but forget to tell the audience what to do with the information. The reader is left wondering whether they’re just supposed to be aware that the information exists, or if they’re supposed to act on it in some way.

One helpful tip is to end the communication by looking towards the future. Tell the reader what you want them to do. If they merely need to be aware of the information, you could use a phrase like “If you have any questions, let me know.” If they need to do something, state it clearly. For example, you might say, “Please send your changes to this document to me by Thursday at 10 am so that I can get them into the final draft.”

You might find this format helpful:

  • Be direct: start with the good news to put the reader in a positive frame of mind.
  • Give supporting details, explanation and commentary. These should be clearly organized. If you have a large amount of information, you may choose to use bullet points, headings or links/attachments.
  • If there are any drawbacks, state them clearly but positively. (“Please mail the defective phone back so that we can issue you a new model).
  • End with a note of thanks or congratulations.

Here’s an example:

To: Alice Meng
From: Ilya Marchenkova
Subject: Baby Carrier Replacement
Date: Jan. 19th 2019Ms. Meng,

Thank you for emailing us about the broken strap on your baby carrier. We would be happy to send you a replacement carrier at no cost.

To receive your new carrier, please:

1) Cut the straps of your damaged carrier and take a photo. Make sure that the warranty number located on the waistband of your carrier is clearly displayed. I’ve attached a PDF with a series of photos to show you how to do this.

2) Email me the photo along with your mailing address

Once we receive this information, we will send your new carrier with next-day shipping.

Let me know if there’s anything more we can help you with.

Thanks,
– Ilya

As you can see, Ilya breaks the good news immediately, then clearly lays out what Alice needs to do next to receive the new carrier. Even the drawbacks, such as having to cut the straps on her current carrier so that it is not used by another baby, are stated positively. Ilya also includes attachments to help her easily follow his instructions. He then ends on a positive note.

Remember that when you communicate, you should always be aware of the context, audience and purpose of your message. Concision is highly valued in the workplace, but it should come at the expense of tact or using a positive tone.

Delivering Positive and Neutral Messages to Multiple Audiences

When you write a message to a single audience — especially if you know that audience — it’s often clear what the reader needs to know. But what if you’re communicating to multiple audiences? And what if those audiences have different levels of experience with your subject matter?

Let’s take a look at this email written by Erin White coming out to their colleagues as non-binary. This is obviously positive news, but they don’t know exactly what each colleague knows and believes about non-binary people. When you read this email, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do they use the good/neutral news model discussed above?
  • How would you describe their tone?
  • How do they structure their message? (Headings, etc)
  • How do they meet the needs of different types of audiences?

Subject: Good morning! I’m coming out as nonbinary

All –

Y’all have made VCU feel like home for me for the past 10 years. I wanted to share with you today that I am nonbinary, and use they/them pronouns. I have been out as nonbinary in my personal life for a while and I’m ready to bring that part of myself to my work life.

Why now?
I have been a member of the VCU community for a long time, I love working here, and I know this is a place where I can bring my whole self to work. I think my work and VCUL community are enriched when employees are authentically present. I think that all you kind folks at VCUL are open to welcoming me. I also think it’s important to be visible to folks in the community, especially students, who are trans or nonbinary.

What does that mean for me, your colleague?
I’m asking you to change how you talk to me and how you refer to me. Instead of using she or her pronouns to refer to me, you can use they and them. “Erin sent that message about their pronouns.” It’s kind of awkward at first but it gets easier with practice.

What can I call you?
– Addressing me: Erin, you, friend, colleague, erwhite, E-dubs, Mx. White (pronounced “mix”)…
– Referring to me: Erin, they, them, theirs, that person, friend, colleague, talented IT professional…

What shouldn’t I call you?
– Addressing me: Ms., Miss, lady, girl, woman, ma’am…
– Referring to me: she, her, he, him, it, Ms., Miss, lady, girl, woman…

What if I get it wrong?
It’s okay! If you catch yourself, correct and move on. What’s important is to try.

Will you correct me if I get it wrong?
It depends on the situation. If I remind you, it’s because I know we respect each other and both care about our relationship.

Can I correct others?
Yes, in the spirit of calling folks in rather than calling them out. We’re all in community with each other, and want to be generous with each other as we learn.

I don’t agree that I should use they/them pronouns for you.
I hope that you can respect me and honour how I am asking to be addressed, recognizing that inclusion is a core value at VCU, so we can work together. Another option is to just use my name instead of my pronouns.

That’s it! There are more resources on how to affirm nonbinary folks online if you are interested. Thank you for reading this far and thank you for your support.

Source: Erinrwhite.com

In this email, Erin uses a lot of the strategies we just discussed. They are direct and get right to the point (delivering the key message in the subject line and the first sentence), then provide supporting details. They meet the needs of multiple types of audiences by using clear headings and links to external resources for those who want more information. They also use a warm, positive tone that assumes that the VCU community will be supportive and respectful. For example, they refer to the audience as “kind folks” and stresses that “inclusion is a core value” of the university.

They also think about the topic from the perspective of their audience and anticipate that some people might find using the ‘they’ pronoun a little awkward. By mentioning this, assuring the reader that it gets easier with practice, and giving an alternative (referring to them by their name, rather than pronoun), Erin anticipates all of their reader’s needs.

When you communicate to multiple audiences, you can use the same strategies:

  • Thinking about what information different types of audiences might need.
  • Using headings to allow people to skim for relevant content.
  • Thinking about tone and word choice. How will different audience members react to your tone? Do you need to define any words?
  • Providing links or attachments with more information for those who need it.
  • Anticipating questions or objections your audience might have and answering them.

Bad News Messages

A bad news message (or negative news message) delivers news that the audience does not want to hear, read, or receive. Delivering negative news is never easy. Whether you are informing someone they are being laid off or providing constructive criticism on their job performance, how you choose to deliver the message can influence its response (Bovee & Thill, 2010).

Some people prefer their bad news to be direct and concise. Others may prefer a less direct approach. How you break bad news will also depend on your culture, your family and norms of your industry. For example, people in India might be very direct with their family and close friends, but use an indirect approach in a workplace setting.

Regardless of whether you determine a direct or indirect approach is warranted, your job is to deliver news that you anticipate will be unwelcome, unwanted, and possibly dismissed.

In this section we will examine several scenarios that can be communicated internally (within the organization) and externally (outside the organization), but recognize that the lines can be blurred as communication flows outside and through an organization or business. Internal and external communication environments often have a degree of overlap. The rumour of anticipated layoffs may surface in the local media, and you may be called upon to address the concern within the organization. In a similar way, a product that has failed internal quality control tests will require several more tests and improvements before it is ready for market, but if that information leaves the organization, it can hurt the business reputation, prospects for future contracts, and the company’s ability to secure financing.

Goals of bad news messages

When you break bad news, you first want to think about the best possible outcome for everyone involved. For example, if you have to lay off a good employee because of budget cuts, the best case scenario is that the person is upset but understands that the layoff wasn’t about their work performance. If you handle the news with professionalism, you might be able to preserve the working relationship in the future. If you’re firing an employee who hasn’t responded to multiple Performance Improvement Plans, however, you would want to break the news clearly and compassionately, but you might not care as much about preserving the relationship.

This also applies to external communication. Sometimes, an angry customer might complain on social media. You might not be able to preserve the relationship with that customer, but other customers will be watching to see how you handle it. If you deal with the angry customer in a fair, professional manner, you will leave others with a positive impression of your company.

There are seven goals to keep in mind when delivering negative news, in person or in written form:

  1. Be clear and concise to minimize the chances of confusion or back-and-forth communication.
  2. Help the receiver understand and accept the news.
  3. Maintain trust and respect for the business or organization and for the receiver.
  4. Avoid legal liability or erroneous admission of guilt or culpability.
  5. Maintain the relationship, even if a formal association is being terminated. (Note: this only applies to situations where you want the relationship to continue. When dealing with an abusive client, for example, your goal might be to clearly sever the relationship).
  6. Reduce the anxiety associated with the negative news to increase comprehension.
  7. Achieve the designated business outcome.

Scenarios

Let’s go through some scenarios. Let’s say you’re a supervisor and have been given the task of discussing repeated lateness with an employee called Brian. Brian has frequently been late for work, and the problem has grown worse over the last two weeks. The lateness is impairing not only Brian’s performance, but also that of the entire work team. Your manager has instructed you to put an end to it. The desired result is for Brian to stop being late and to improve his performance.

You can

  1. stop by Brian’s cubicle and simply say, “Get to work on time or you are out”
  2. invite Brian out to a nice lunch and let him have it
  3. write Brian a stern e-mail
  4. ask Brian to come to your office and discuss the behaviour with him in private

While there are many other ways you could choose to address the situation, let’s examine each of these four alternatives in light of the goals to keep in mind when presenting negative news.

Scenario 1

First, you could approach Brian in his work space and speak to him directly. Advantages to this approach include the ability to get right to the point right away. However, this approach could strain your supervisor-employee relationship as a result of the public display of criticism, Brian may not understand you, there is a lack of a formal discussion you can document, and there is a risk that your actions may not bring about the desired results.

The goals of delivering a negative message include the desire to be clear and concise in order to avoid having a back-and-forth conversation where you’re continually providing clarification. The approach described above does not provide the opportunity for discussion, feedback, or confirmation that Brian has clearly understood your concern. It fails to address the performance concern and it limits the correction to the lateness. Overall, it fails to demonstrate respect for all parties. The lack of tact apparent in the approach may reflect negatively on you as the supervisor and your supervisors or managers.

When you need to speak to an employee about a personnel concern, it is always best to do it in private. Give thought and concern to the conversation before it occurs, and make a list of points to cover with specific information, including grievances. Like any other speech, you may need to rehearse, particularly if this type of meeting is new to you. When it comes time to have the discussion, issue the warning, back it up in writing with documentation, and don’t give the impression that you might change your decision. Whether the issue at hand is a simple caution about tardiness or a more serious conversation, you need to be fair and respectful, even if the other person has been less than professional. Let’s examine the next alternative.

Scenario 2

Let’s say you invite Brian to lunch at a nice restaurant. There is linen on the table, silverware is present for more than the main course, and the water glasses have stems. The environment says “good job” in its uniqueness, presentation, and luxury. Your words will contradict this nonverbal message. The juxtaposition between the environment and the verbal message will cause tension and confusion, which will probably be an obstacle to the receiver’s ability to listen. If Brian doesn’t understand the message, and the message requires clarification, your approach has failed. The contrast between the restaurant setting and the negative message does not promote understanding and acceptance of the bad news or correction. Furthermore, it does not build trust in the relationship, as the restaurant invitation might be interpreted as a “trap” or a betrayal. Let’s examine yet another approach.

Scenario 3

You’ve written Brian a stern e-mail. You’ve included a list of all the recent dates when he was late and made several statements about the quality of his work. You’ve indicated he needs to improve, and stop being late, or else. But was your email harassment? Could it be considered beyond the scope of supervision and interpreted as mean or cruel? And do you even know if Brian has received it? If there was no reply, do you know whether it achieved its desired business outcome? A written message may certainly be part of the desired approach, but how it is presented and delivered is as important as what it says. Let’s examine our fourth approach to this scenario.

Scenario 4

You ask Brian to join you in a private conversation. You start the conversation with an expression of concern and an open-ended question: “Brian, I’ve been concerned about your work lately. Is everything all right?” As Brian answers, you may demonstrate that you are listening by nodding your head and possibly taking notes. You may learn that Brian has been having problems sleeping or that his living situation has changed. Or Brian may decline to share any issues, deny that anything is wrong, and ask why you are concerned. You may then state that you’ve observed the chronic lateness, name one or more specific mistakes you have found in his work, and end with a reiteration that you are concerned. This statement of concern may elicit more responses and open the conversation up into a dialogue where you come to understand the situation, Brian sees your concern, and the relationship is preserved. Alternatively, in case the conversation does not go well, you will still keep a positive attitude even as you document the meeting and give Brian a verbal warning.

Regardless of how well or poorly the conversation goes, if Brian tells other employees about it, they may take note of how you handled the situation, and it will contribute to their perception of you. It guides their expectations of how you operate and how to communicate with you, as this interaction is not only about you and Brian. You represent the company and its reputation, and your professional display of concern as you try to learn more sends a positive message. While the private, respectful meeting may not be the perfect solution, it is preferable to the other approaches we have considered.

One additional point to consider as you document this interaction is the need to present the warning in writing. You may elect to prepare a memo that outlines the information concerning Brian’s performance and lateness and have it ready should you want to present it. If the session goes well, and you have the discretion to make a judgment call, you may elect to give him another week to resolve the issue. Even if it goes well, you may want to present the memo, as it documents the interaction and serves as evidence of due process should Brian’s behaviour fail to change, eventually resulting in the need for termination.

This combined approach of a verbal and written message is increasingly the norm in business communication.

Delivering a bad news message

There are two approaches you can use to deliver a negative news message–the direct approach and the indirect approach. We’ll go through each of these in turn.

Direct approach

The direct approach is often used when the audience values brevity, the message needs to be concise, the message is very complex and might not be understood easily, the message is related to a known issue or problem (and bad news won’t be a surprise), or you’re terminating a business relationship.

As shown in Figure 4.11.1, the bad news is announced in the opening or introduction of the message.

Your request for vacation time from August 1-30 was not approved because it is over your vacation days entitlement of 10 days.

Please re-submit your request for vacation days (up to a maximum of 10) to HR as soon as possible.

Figure 4.11.1 An example of a bad news message delivered using the direct approach

Indirect approach

When the bad news may have a significant impact on the recipient or you don’t know them very well, you may prefer to use the indirect approach. Figure 4.11.2 shows an example of a bad news message delivered using this approach.

Thank you for submitting your request for 10 days of vacation (your maximum entitlement) in August.

Summer is traditionally a time when many employees are out of the office and demands on the servers are reduced. In order to minimize the disruption to staff throughout the company, the IT department will be rolling out a server replacement project during July and August. Because this project will need to be completed in a more compressed timeframe, no vacation requests in July and August are possible for staff in the IT department. As a result, your request for vacation during August has not been approved. However, you are welcome to take vacation before and/or after the project rolls out. In compensation, HR is providing IT staff with three extra days of paid vacation.

 

We look forward to receiving your revised vacation request soon.

Figure 4.11.2 An example of a bad news message delivered using the indirect approach

The indirect approach for delivering bad news has five main parts:

  1. Open with a buffer statement
  2. Explain the situation
  3. Break the bad news
  4. Redirect or provide alternatives
  5. End politely and forward-looking

We’ll go through each of these parts in detail.

Buffer statement

The first part of a negative news message, verbal or written, is a buffer statement. It provides neutral or positive information. It sets the tone and often serves as a cushion for the information to come. It is important that the buffer not be overly positive because this can be misleading or set up the reader to expect a positive news message instead.

Explanation

Next, an explanation discusses why there is an issue. This may be relatively simple, quite complex, or uncomfortable. While an explanation is important, never admit or imply responsibility without written authorization from your company cleared by legal counsel. Try to avoid labeling the bad news, such as calling it inconvenient or disappointing, because this can assume the feelings of your reader and create a negative impression. The person receiving the message may not have felt badly about receiving the news until you pointed out that it was indeed inconvenient or disappointing.

Break the bad news

The third part of the negative news message involves the bad news itself, and the emphasis here is on clarity and accuracy. While you want to break the bad news clearly, try not to spotlight it.

Redirect or provide alternatives

The fourth part of a bad news message is the redirect, where you refocus attention on a solution strategy, possible alternatives, or the subsequent actions that will take place.

End politely and forward-looking

Last, you want to end your message politely and looking to the future. Don’t mention the bad news again!

Breaking Bad News on Social Media

When someone complains about you or your company on social media, you might be tempted to ignore it. Unfortunately, the conversation about your company will continue whether or not you respond, so responding gives you an opportunity to control the message.

Let’s say that a customer, Amir, posted on Twitter that the watch your company sold him broke within a week. Your goal is to help resolve Amir’s complaint and also show that your watch company has great customer service. Getting into a back-and-forth exchange with Amir will make you look unprofessional, so the best thing to do is to reply to Amir with a short message like: “Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Please follow me so that we can DM (direct message) each other and find a solution. Or, you can email me at ___.”

Hopefully, this will take the conversation offline so that you can resolve it. Maybe it will turn out that Amir’s watch is under warranty and you can repair or replace it. Or maybe Amir broke his watch in a way that’s not covered. You can break the bad news using the strategies above in a private manner.

 

Activities For Further Reflection

Your instructor may ask you to complete one or more of the following exercises.

  1. Choose one of the following bad news scenarios. Decide how you want to deliver the message (in person, phone, email, letter, etc), then write out the message (or a script for a conversation). Feel free to make up supporting details.
Scenario: You are the manager of a clothing store. A customer emails you to complain that she was not allowed to return a dress. Unfortunately, the customer’s dress had been torn up by her dog. Your refund policy does not cover this type of damage. You must tell the customer that you can’t refund her money.
Scenario: You promised your boss that you would finish your report by 5 pm today. Unfortunately, you are still waiting for information from your coworker, Pam. Pam and your boss are good friends. You must let the boss know that if you don’t get the information from Pam soon, the report will be late.
Scenario: You are a manager of a restaurant. Your best waiter is named Chad. Lots of customers come in to the restaurant because they love his service. Unfortunately, Chad has been rude to the other wait staff and they have complained to you. Today, you witnessed Chad yelling at a hostess for a very minor reason. You need to get Chad to improve his behaviour, while also maintaining a positive relationship with him so he doesn’t quit.
Scenario: You work for a small start-up that makes designer baby toys. Recently, your team has received several complaints about your most popular toy, saying that it has broken in a way that could harm babies. Your CEO asked you to research this issue, and your research shows that the toy is not safe and must be recalled. You must tell the CEO immediately.
Scenario: You run a coffee shop. Your friend Becky is an artist. She asked if she could hang her art on the walls of your coffee shop. You’ve done this in the past with other artists, and it’s been a success, so you agreed. Unfortunately, you’ve just found out that the art that Becky wants to display is pornographic. You no longer want to hang it in the coffee shop. You need to tell her in a way that preserves the friendship.

2. Search for some of your favourite businesses online and see how they handle customer complaints. Do they follow the strategies discussed in this textbook?

Reference

Bovee, C., & Thill, J. (2010). Business communication essentials: A skills-based approach to vital business English (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Attribution

This chapter contains material taken from Introduction to Professional Communications is (c) 2018 by Melissa Ashman and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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