This post is part of our Weekly Tips series.

Delivering Bad NewsI got to travel stand-by the other day. My experience was a happy one: I made the flight and got home at 7pm instead of midnight—hooray. It reminded me, though, of a time I witnessed three stand-by passengers whose experience was crappy, not happy. And I share it because it’s an important lesson for all of us to be mindful about what we say when we have to deliver bad news.

At the time, I was confirmed and boarded on a fully booked flight. There was a delay leaving the gate while the powers that be sorted out how to fill the three remaining empty seats—two of which were offered up in the row directly in front of me. This was followed by another delay.

Then the gate agent came on board, marched down the aisle to the stand-by passengers, and said, “I need you to come off the plane. We have revenues that have showed up.”

Just like that, “I need you to come off the plane. We have revenues that have showed up.”

[Tweet “Getting real means appreciating what it might be like to be the recipient of your bad news. #communication”]

There’s so much that’s wrong with this I don’t even know where to start.

Actually, I do know where to start. How about her first sentence: “I need you to come off the plane.” Points for directness: 10. Points for empathy: -10.

Now, let’s look at the second sentence: “We have revenues that have showed up.” Points for honesty: 10. Points for customer focus: -10.

I know what it feels like—and you probably do too—to get called to the gate desk for a boarding pass (victory!). I can only imagine what it feels like to get the boarding pass, get settled into my seat, and anticipate whatever is waiting for me at the other end (a timely arrival for a client meeting? A loving greeting from my spouse at my home airport?) only to be told, “Just kidding! Oh and by the way, we value the people who paid for this flight more than we value you (even though we refer to them as ‘revenues.’)”

Here’s the thing: mistakes are made and bad news must be delivered, often under stress and in a rush. This is an inevitable part of work and life. What’s up for grabs is this: how you handle it.

Getting real requires a lot more than just directness; it means appreciating what it might be like to be the recipient of your bad news, and being committed to saying what needs to be said in a way that demonstrates customer service that’s authentic and sensitive. Even when you don’t think you have time.

I can think of at least a dozen ways the gate agent could have done the latter. And if you’re honest, you can probably think of better ways to have delivered bad news recently.

The question is, what will you learn from it and how will you adjust the next time?

Make It Real

This week, make a master list of all the caveats you might use when you have to deliver bad news—like, “There’s no easy way to say this” or, “This is awkward” or, simply, “I’ve got bad news.” Then they’ll be top of mind when the opportunity arises to use them.

Learn More


Find out how caveats can make you a better salesperson or brush up on the Name It and Claim It technique in Chapter 9 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

The following two tabs change content below.

Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).