Mastering the Art of Breaking Bad News

By Ellie Martel

Breaking bad news is an essential skill that will serve you well both professionally and personally. In the corporate world, delivering difficult messages with sensitivity and clarity is crucial.

It is particularly timely given that many organisations are currently undergoing restructuring.

This blog will hopefully help any in-house communicators in the unfortunate position of having to support executives with the delivery of bad news.

The SPIKES Protocol, originally developed for clinical settings, can be adapted effectively for corporate communications. Here’s how you can implement this method to navigate tough conversations.

The SPIKES Protocol: A Structured Approach

SPIKES stands for Setting up, Perception, Invitation, Knowledge, Emotions with Empathy, and Strategy or Summary.

Let's break down each component:

  1. Setting Up

Preparation is Key: Before initiating the conversation, thoroughly prepare what you want to communicate. Ensure that your message is consistent across all team members to maintain a unified front.

Consider the Physical Space: Choose a private and comfortable setting. Sit down to speak, maintain an open posture, and make eye contact. This helps in establishing a connection and conveying sincerity.

Manage Nervousness: Adopt a neutral body position to reduce visible signs of nervousness. Place your feet flat on the floor, keep your ankles together, and rest your hands palms-down on your lap. Maintaining eye contact is crucial for showing attentiveness.

  1. Perception

Understand Their Viewpoint: Recognise that team members may have varying perceptions of the news. Some may resort to denial as a coping mechanism, manifesting as wishful thinking, omitting unfavourable details, or having unrealistic future expectations.

  1. Invitation

Gauge Their Readiness: Before delving into the details, ask your team member if they are ready to hear the news. This shows respect for their emotional state and prepares them mentally for what’s coming.

  1. Knowledge

Delivering the News: Start with a warning shot to brace them for the bad news. Phrases like “Unfortunately, I have some difficult news to share,” or “I am sorry to tell you,” prepare them for what follows. Providing context helps in making the information more digestible. For instance, explaining why certain decisions were made can help them understand and accept the situation.

  1. Emotions with Empathy

Acknowledge Their Emotions: People will react differently, ranging from silence to crying. It’s essential to show empathy and respect their emotional response.

Handling Tears: If a team member cries, give them space initially. Let them process their emotions without immediately touching them. Offer tissues and stay quietly by their side. Once they begin to calm down, you can offer a comforting gesture, like a hug, if they are open to it.

  1. Strategy or Summary

Planning for the Future: Once the news has been delivered and emotions have been acknowledged, focus on the future. Discuss next steps only when the team member is ready. Ensure that everyone leaves with a clear plan and understanding of their roles moving forward.

Practical Tips for Corporate Communicators

Consistent Messaging: Ensure that everyone involved in delivering the news is on the same page to prevent mixed messages.

Privacy Matters: Always choose a private setting for these conversations to respect the individual's privacy.

Be Honest and Clear: Avoid jargon and be straightforward to prevent misunderstandings.

Follow Up: After the initial conversation, follow up to provide support and ensure the team member understands the next steps.

By mastering the SPIKES Protocol, corporate communicators can deliver difficult news with compassion and clarity, helping team members navigate challenging times with support and understanding.

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