25 March 2020

As professionals, it’s always great to share good news with your clients. But over the coming weeks and months, clients are going to be impacted by a rapidly changing and uncertain environment. While at times this may present opportunities, there will also be challenges to navigate. Part of being an effective professional is knowing how to tell clients information they might not want to hear – communicating that bad news in a clear, confident and empathetic way.

Our techniques

If you're procrastinating over your next difficult conversation, here's our seven-step guide to get the best possible outcome.

1. Pause

The first step in conducting a difficult conversation is not to have it at all until you've had the chance to step back and reflect. That's because most people's first reaction to any kind of uncomfortable situation is emotional. And, as psychologist Rachel Clements from the Centre for Corporate Health says, the worst thing anyone can do is to start a conversation while you’re not in control of your emotions.

"To get results, and if time permits, the deliverer needs to pause and leave it a day - even a couple of days - until they're emotionally ok to do it," she says.

2. Prepare

Once you're thinking straight, it's time to prepare. That means working out exactly what the purpose of the meeting is. In other words, what do you want to have resolved when you get to the end of it?

Merilyn Speiser, Principal of Catalina Consultants, says preparing with the end in mind will help you anchor your meeting no matter how far off course it may stray.

"If you're telling someone something they really don't want to hear, there's no way you can predict exactly how they will behave," she says. "That's why often it's a good idea to prepare by drawing a flowchart, which can help you think about the variables and arrange your thoughts based on a number of different scenarios."

While you're in this preparation phase, you should also notify the person you'll be speaking to about what you want to cover. For instance, if an investment fails or dividends suddenly drop, let them know this in advance so that they won't be caught by surprise.

3. Practice

Because so much of a meeting is unpredictable, it's vital to control the things that you can control. So, once you know what you want to say, it's time to practice. "Make sure you do some preparation around what you're going to say and how you're going to say it," Clements says.

She suggests a good technique is to rehearse and record the most important parts of what you're going to say so you can see how you come across. "Your tone, body language and voice quality are all vital and will go some way to determining how the meeting goes."

4. Perfect

You know what you want to say and how you want to say it. Now add the finishing touches to give your meeting the best chance of running according to plan.

For instance, where will you hold the meeting? As more and more businesses move to remote working arrangements, and are encouraged to avoid face-to-face meetings, this will introduce new challenges to delivering difficult news. Is your news better delivered over a video conference rather than a phone call? Using simple, and readily available technology, can help recreate a more meaningful connection with uncertain and concerned clients.

If you are video conferencing, ensure you provide clear instructions for your client, and allow additional time to manage any technical difficulties. Consider logging in five minutes ahead of the meeting to ensure your client isn’t having to wait for you to join the call. Consider the background of your video – are you in a pleasant, well-lit environment that can help set a neutral tone?   

Speiser says that you should take some time before the meeting to clear your head and rehearse one last time. "You need to be in the right state of mind, not running from meeting. I always recommend blocking out the 30 minutes beforehand to do a final piece of preparation."

5. Pilot

The meeting is finally here: now it's your job to control how it goes. And Clements believes that taking charge begins right from the very first sentence.

"We coach people to say something like: 'Thank you for finding the time to get together. We're here to discuss your investment's poor performance. The content might be difficult for you to hear and it's also quite difficult for me to say.'"

"This immediately lets them know that it's going to be a difficult conversation."

Clements says that by going straight into the bad news – and then pausing for a moment to let it sink in – you'll give the other person some much needed psychological adjustment time.

She also says that for the next little while it's unlikely that they'll be listening to what you have to say. So don't go straight into the rationale for why something has happened. Instead, if the person reacts emotionally, give them time to vent, talk or express their disagreement before taking the meeting back to where it needs to be.

"If you move too early emotions will start surfacing again," Clements cautions. "So wait until they've finished talking."

6. Present

When the person you're speaking to is thinking rationally again, it's time to present your side of the story. "You need to set the context and build a narrative," Speiser says. "It's not unlike telling a story."

At the same time, she suggests that you'll need to improvise, at least to some extent.

"Because you never know exactly how things will work out and how the person will react to your news there's always some element of thinking on your feet. However, this will always be made easier if you you've prepared and you know what outcomes you want to achieve."

If it's appropriate, you may also consider building a bridge by acknowledging your own contribution to the situation.

7. Press

Finally, once the meeting is drawing to a close, it's time to check the person you're speaking to has fully understood what the meeting was all about before setting out the 'where to from here' or next steps. It can often be a good idea to put these steps in writing so that everyone remembers them.

After all, Clements notes that when clients are upset or angry, they're a lot less likely to hear everything that's being said to them.

"I've spoken to people after difficult conversations where they haven't taken a word in at all," she says.

And finally

Clements also argues that the fallout from a difficult conversation doesn't necessarily start and finish with the people in the meeting.

If the bad news affects others (e.g. children or spouses) you can sometimes soften the blow by asking your client if they'd prefer you to be the one who explains the situation.

These simple steps can make all the difference when contemplating your next difficult conversation.