How to deliver bad news

It’s never easy when you’re the bearer of bad news. However, this can be an inevitable part of the business. You might need to tell a customer that the widget they’ve been waiting for has been discontinued. You may want to inform them they will not be getting the refund they are demanding. You could be responding to a complaint, where you know your customer won’t be happy with what you have to say. Or you may need to inform a potential job applicant that they didn’t get the role.

While the bad news is often best delivered face to face or on the phone, sometimes this isn’t possible. So we have to pen well-crafted emails or letters that we fear could disappoint, alienate or, in some cases, anger the recipient.

So what is the best way to convey negative information?

1. Don’t be too formal

When we convey negative information, many of us have a tendency to use very formal phrases:

“We regret to inform you that your application has not been successful…”

“Unfortunately, after perusing your letter of complaint, we are unable to meet your request for…”

We think using formal terminology makes us sound like we are taking the issue seriously. However, when you use phrases that are too formal, the risk is that you sound abrupt and rude instead. Just because you need to convey negative information doesn’t mean that you should suddenly sound like a lawyer.

2. Start with a positive statement

Depending on the negative information you need to convey, it can be useful, in most cases, to start with a positive statement.

“Thank you for your recent letter about the service you received in our Chapel Street store. We value your feedback and have taken your comments seriously. Specifically, you mentioned the behaviour of the sales assistant and you have asked for a refund for the jeans you bought. As you’ve already worn the jeans twice, we are unable to refund the amount to you… “

The note above starts with a positive statement, which makes the whole tone of the email or letter friendlier. It works better than going straight into the negative news:

“Regarding your letter of complaint, we regret to inform you that we are unable to refund you for the jeans you have purchased.”

3. Use your judgement

In most cases, it’s advisable to start with a positive statement. However, in some instances, the recipient of your email/letter may prefer you to get straight to the point. This is particularly true in any kind of ongoing complaint resolution process. If you’re already exchanging your seventh email about the same issue, chances are that your recipient simply wants to get the issue resolved. In those cases, get straight to the point. But always be polite.

4. Close politely

Always remember to close your email/letter politely. Think of it as a “bad news sandwich”, where you open with a positive statement, deliver the bad news and then close with a polite message. The opening and closing act as a psychological buffer around the bad news. Examples of polite closings:

“Thank you again for your feedback and please feel free to contact us at any time if you have any other queries.”

“Although you haven’t been successful in securing the role, we would be grateful if we could keep your resume on file in case there is another opportunity in the future.”

5. Answer any anticipated questions

If the news you deliver is likely to provoke some questions from your recipient, it’s very important to answer any anticipated questions in your email/letter.

Sometimes, recipients become unnecessarily anxious. The bad news is never easy to deliver. Apart from the techniques above, always put yourself in the shoes of the person who will be receiving the bad news. What are their likely concerns? What are their hopes, dreams and fears? How are they likely to be impacted by your bad news? Writing your email/letter with that in mind can also help to soften the bad news.

Valerie Khoo is Managing Director of the Sydney Writers’ Centre in Milsons Point, Sydney. As one of Australia’s leading centres for writing training, it runs short courses to help people get published and improve their business communication skills. Visit for more information.

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