How many times have you heard “bad news doesn’t get better with age”? One of the most difficult things a leader must do is have tough conversations with co-workers, direct reports, or a boss. Whether it’s counseling someone for poor performance, firing them, or confronting them on their unethical behavior, it’s never easy to pass along bad news. Being unprepared for those conversations, however, only makes it worse for you and for them. Those tough conversations are never going to be pleasant, but here are three key ways to make them less unpleasant.
3 keys to tough conversations
1. First, prepare what you’re going to say in advance. When you’re delivering bad news to someone, it’s critical you get to the point, stay on message, and keep the conversation as brief as possible. Tough conversations are no time to go off on tangents or head down rabbit trails – you’re only making an uncomfortable situation worse, for both you and the other person. Stay focused by preparing an outline of your thoughts and talking points in advance. One of the best ways I’ve found to organize your thoughts is the Brief Map from Joe McCormack’s book “Brief” (You can download from the BRIEF toolkit here). It’s a great way to organize and clarify your thoughts in advance, and it can double as your script for that difficult conversation.
2. Second, start the conversation with the headline or the “bottom line up front” (BLUF). More often than not, the person on the receiving end of the conversation knows or suspects bad news is coming. There’s no reason to delay the inevitable with small talk; it only makes it worse. Start the conversation by telling them exactly why you asked them to come see you: “John, unfortunately, due to your recent misconduct, we’re going to have to let you go.” I wrote a separate article that dives a little deeper into BLUF as it relates to email here.
3. Finally, make sure the other person fully understands what just happened. Your conclusion (the “E” in the Brief Map, for “Ending”) should be crystal clear to the listener. Tell them precisely what has occurred and what they need to do next, then stop talking. If the other person walks away from the conversation with a different understanding of what just happened, you’re only setting yourself up for a repeat of the same difficult conversation. For example, if you’re firing the person, don’t end with “we’re thinking about letting you go” or “we’re considering terminating your employment.” Be clear: “Your last day on the job will be the end of the month. We’ll pay you three months of severance. Ms. Smith in HR will provide you with other details. Thank you.”
Leaders will face tough conversations
Life would certainly be a lot easier without those tough conversations, but it’s inevitable as a leader that you will face them. Be deliberate about these conversations, and be prepared for them, and you will lessen the awkwardness on yourself and the other party. There’s no better time to be brief than when you’re delivering bad news.
If you want to learn more, check out Joe McCormack’s new podcast. He’s sharing BRIEF insights every other week and you can signup right here. Thanks for your attention!
 By the way, if the tough conversation involves a personnel issue in the work environment, it’s always a good idea to talk to your human resources representative and/or legal office prior to the conversation. You can even ask them to review your talking points. For some conversations, they may advise you to have a witness in the room or to provide a written summary to the person with whom you’re having the conversation.
PHOTO CREDIT: iStock
About the author: Brigadier General (ret.) Rich Gross is a strategic advisor to the Brief Lab and the Sheffield Company. He spent over 30 years in the military, serving as the senior legal advisor to multiple senior leaders, to include the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While serving in the military, he gained a reputation for clear and concise communications. Follow Rich on Twitter at @RichGross85.