No one enjoys delivering a difficult message, but some people make it seem easy to do and certainly easier for the recipient to receive, process, and accept. Here are a few guidelines that might make your next difficult message delivery a little smoother for all involved.

Be clear, be brief and get to the point when you communicate your message. It can be uncomfortable delivering a difficult message but convey the facts and resist the temptation to sugarcoat or be vague, this will only cause confusion and frustration for your team.

Step back for a minute, if you put time and energy into getting to know and support your team, it will feel much safer for them to hear difficult news from you and they will be more likely to band together and back you up with whatever next steps need to be taken during the difficult times.

The foundation for receiving a difficult message is built long before the difficult message is delivered, not because you are trying to be strategic or deceptive but because a good leader always works on building and maintaining relationships. This is never a one and done. It is always an authentic action of caring for and supporting your team.

It is good to understand and explain why a certain decision was made. Even though the decision might still sting, sharing the reason why can build understanding and good will with your team. It is also helpful to consider what questions your team may have so you can come prepared with answers. If they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer, resist the urge to answer with a guess. If you are in a position of authority, employees expect and deserve to get accurate information from you. If you don’t know the answer, just say you don’t know the answer. If you are able to, get back to them with an answer and make it a priority to do it quickly.

If there is a delay with getting the information outside of your control, communicate the hold-up in an e-mail so your team knows you haven’t forgotten. Whatever you do, don’t drop the ball on getting back to them.

Also, depending on the message, your team may be fearful or feel like they have no control over circumstances. Consider how you may be able to speak to their fears to help them feel supported and heard. Also consider how you can help them gain a sense of control when their circumstances feel very much out of control. Some people will hear a message once and be good. Other people take more time to process and might have questions later. Therefore, it is helpful to also extend an invitation to answer questions that may surface later.

Delivering a difficult message should never go without discussion of a potential solution or pathway to success. This sends the message that you are not just delivering bad news, but you believe a solution can be achieved. It is certainly helpful to come to the table prepared with potential solutions or clear expectations if that is what is required but you should allow your employee/team the opportunity to brainstorm solutions as well. This will help with buy-in to the solution as well as a sense of control in an otherwise difficult or scary situation. Create a clear plan with goals and expectations as well as a timeline for this to be achieved in. Schedule check-ins to help keep your team accountable.

Dr. Siquilla Liebetrau, Psy.D., HSPP, is a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Bowen Center. You can contact her at Ask.DrLiebetrau@BowenCenter.org.

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