Does anyone really know how to break bad news? Specifically, how to break bad news over a text?
“I think professionalism is important, and professionalism means you get paid.” Erica Jong
Not long ago, I received a call to my mobile from a certain person who tends to be the bearer of bad news. This individual is wrought with the task of being the messenger of all things gone wrong. As soon as I saw the name and the ‘missed call,’ my gut told me there was something I needed to know. Something that likely, would not bode well for me.
Knowing how to break bad news is an art…
I quickly sent a text, “Saw you called. Is everything alright?” To me, the question was obviously a bit redundant. However, as I teach my students, never assume anything. Assumptions are bad for business.
Instead of receiving what I refer to as the ‘warm-up’ of correspondence, something as simple as, “Listen, hope your trip is going well,” or “Thanks for getting back to me.” Instead, the words on the screen of my iPhone simply delivered the particular news that made my stomach churn.
There was no warm-up and no niceties. Instead, it was just get-to-the-point verbiage that lacked tone or compassion. In other words, it would have been preferable to add some sugar to that spice.
In the United States alone, 6 billion text messages are sent every day. Globally the number is a staggering 8.3 trillion per year. From Wall Street, to Bay Street, to the ever-naughty celebrity breaking up with his fiancée, many of us have given up communicating verbally in exchange for trading words on our mobile devices. Seriously, who calls anyone anymore?
Texting is of course convenient. It is also a record of communication. Sending nasty text messages or even, as in the aforementioned case, being the bearer of bad news creates a lasting and potentially permanent record of exchange. Furthermore, thanks to screen shots, these texts become something that can be shared in reference to a person’s character.
In my course, Organize Your Life for Entrepreneurs, we spend a week on communication, i.e. – How To and How Not To communicate via email, text, and on social media. One would think this is common sense; however, if you have ever had a beverage or three and sent a regrettable text or typed something while angry, then you have potentially created a lasting record of your inability to control your emotions, or given cause for your character to be questioned. As the debate rages on as to whether or not Apple should unlock the phone of the San Bernardino Bomber and what exactly our right to privacy entails, know that any form of written communication can be used legally.
In our efforts to be available to everyone, spreading ourselves ridiculously thin by ‘dealing’ with as many situations as possible, I think that we have lost a bit of our souls. I don’t know about you, but I was strictly raised with manners. In fact, my grandmother, Agnes, read to me from Amy Vanderbilt’s, ‘Complete Book of Etiquette,’ as a child. I am by no means perfect, and I do send the odd short text, later regretting what could be the perceived tone. However, I am working on it and I believe this is something we should all embrace. Whether texting or emailing, shouldn’t we all remember our manners?
With this in mind, here are 4 ways to soften the blow and bring back the formalities of good communication.
1. If Possible Pick-Up the Phone
Texting loses tone. If there is bad news, a phone call is always the best first option. Start with standard formalities such as, ‘How are you?’ Or, ‘Is this a good time to connect?’ A simple text with, ‘Do you have time to connect for a few minutes?’ is always the best way to go.
2. Consider the Time
If you are, like me, working with people in multiple time-zones, think about what might be happening for the person on the receiving end. Many people leave their mobile on at night (I personally do not and teach my students not to) and you may be texting them in the middle of the night waking them up as the bearer of bad news.
3. If It Must Be a Text
Let’s say you are having a tough time connecting with the intended recipient and you must text to clear the item – remember that whatever you send could easily end up on social media, be kept for legal reasons, or used against you in some way, shape, or form. I always suggest by starting with language that is formal, respectful and complementary. For example, ‘John, you are such a hard worker and I have great respect for everything you are doing. I have been trying to reach you and haven’t heard back. I wanted to let you know that your client, Richard, has left for another firm. Let’s schedule a time to discuss. I have also sent you an email (see item 4).
4. Always Follow-Up with an Email
Emails are still the primary form of business communication. Emails are standard record and most businesses have their own servers to back-up all email communication. Personally, any correspondence that is corrective for an employee, contractor, or any business associate is kept in my personal files and backed-up. I see so many people, especially millennials, eschewing emails in favor of social media communication; however, when it comes down to the law, taxes, or anything business – put it in an email.
Lastly – remember the golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Treat people, even those who are driving you crazy, with dignity, class and professionalism. Think before you text, write, or speak and ask yourself how it would feel to be on the receiving end. At the end of the day, the more money you make in business, the more likely it is that your communication will be increasing. It only takes one weak moment to send something you later regret. Bring professionalism to all aspects of your communication and observe how people respond to you in a more positive and willing way.
Susan Sly is a best selling author, speaker and entrepreneur. She has appeared on CNN, CNBC, Fox, Lifetime Television and the CBN. Susan is the mother of four children and resides in Scottsdale, Arizona.