How to break bad news gently (guest post}

Elizabeth Vather is currently doing linguistics research for Pearson Global English. She graduated from Georgetown University with a B.A. in Linguistics and minors in Arabic and Spanish. These are her own thoughts and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.

Email pervades our daily lives at work and at home, so it is surprising how little time we actually spend thinking about email’s best practices. Our reactions are instinctive—pound out a quick message and hit the send button. But linguistic research reminds us that there’s more going on under the surface.

One type of message that’s tricky to communicate is bad news. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a customer service reply that politely states “no, sorry, we really can’t give you a refund” or been on the sending side where we’ve had to turn down a project or adjust a client’s expectations. Messages like these are ripe for miscommunication, so it’s worth our while to consider some strategies.

Now, let’s say you have some bad news you have to deliver—maybe you can’t meet a deadline or the client is making a request you can’t fulfill. Before you shoot back an email, you might want to consider Jansen and Janssen’s (2013) research. These two authors conducted an experiment to explore the reactions to bad news delivered by email versus voicemail. They presented either a bad news email or voicemail (i.e. flight cancelled, expensive phone repair) to participants who then filled out a questionnaire to evaluate the message.

What they found is that email is more comprehensible and better for detailed information while voicemail is better for persuasion and the customer relationship. The participants who listened to a voicemail had a more positive image of the company and were more inclined to agree with the sender. Customers can better absorb complex information or numbers and figures through email, but spoken language transmits vocal cues and the degree of sincerity. (Presumably the effects of a phone call would be similar to a voice message, but this was not tested.)

The other variable that the researchers investigated was the structure of the messages. They found that participants preferred when an explanation preceded the bad news over when the bad news preceded an explanation. However, this preference was only found for emails—for voicemail, it didn’t matter when the bad news was delivered. Most likely this occurred because the vocal cues overrode preference for a certain structure.

So, the next time you’re about to hit send or pick up the phone, you can weigh your options and choose the most effective communication method. [Editor’s note: With research on your side!]

Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your expertise with us on this tricky topic!

Have you ever had to tell a client or colleague something you knew they wouldn’t want to hear? How did you get through it gracefully?


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