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How to deliver bad news and become a truly empathetic manager

  • 5 Min Read

Giving bad news is never easy, especially in the workplace. But what if there was a way to turn these difficult conversations into opportunities for growth and connection? This guide reveals the secrets to becoming a truly empathetic manager.

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Emma Serlin
Founder and CEO of London Speech Workshop

Giving feedback to your employees, especially when their performance falls short of expectations, is a critical skill to develop – particularly as a manager or HR employee.

But delivering bad news can be tough. And it can be even harder if you’re relaying the message on behalf of someone else – especially if it’s as a result of a company-wide decision that’s out of your hands.

Take time to plan

Giving bad news isn’t a fun task, but there are some steps you can take beforehand that will not only make it easier for you, but also for those on the receiving end.

Firstly, it’s important to fully understand the issue of the person or people involved, so getting the full picture is imperative. You’ll need to know how and why the decision was made, what other possibilities were discussed and the reasoning behind the final outcome.

Secondly, you need to look at what the person has done or is doing well. This is about being able to show them it is not a personal attack – you see them and appreciate their strengths. This makes it easier for a person to accept challenging feedback.

Thirdly, have a clear list of the reasons why you are having this conversation. Be clear on what has not happened, or what has happened that should not have. Make sure that you are able to articulate it in a clear and objective way – sticking to facts, rather than evaluation and subjective language.

You can try using the COAST tool, as discussed in this article, which lists an effective way to plan the process of giving bad news. The COAST tool will also try to ensure that any emotional reaction won’t cause the interaction to go off track. But the potential of things becoming emotional is also why communicating with empathy is important.

The power of empathy

In some instances, each person involved in the interaction may push their point of view more and more aggressively. This can run the risk of the conversation becoming heated or going off-course, and it’s why planning really helps. It’s also quite common for people to get defensive about their work, which is why communicating with empathy is so powerful.

There are many ways to handle difficult conversations – but where possible – the best way will always incorporate empathy.

Empathy is the skill of reading people, understanding their feelings and being able to share their journey with them. It’s about being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It helps us to think about others before we speak and consider differing points of view.

You can use empathy in two specific ways.


When you are planning the meeting you can use empathy to think about how the message might be received, and as such you’ll be able to tailor your message, so it speaks right to their heart and shows them that you’ve considered their thoughts and feelings.

If you think you might find it hard to get through to a difficult employee, try taking a step back and consider the kind of person they are and what makes them tick, as this may give you some clues as to how best to approach the situation.


You can also use empathy during the conversation by taking the time to truly listen to what’s going on for them, so that they feel they are understood. If you’re having to give a formal warning to an employee, it’s beneficial to get their point of view, too, as it will help you understand the situation more and allow you to communicate with more empathy.

Here are just some techniques to demonstrate empathy in all your communications:

● Listen – Make sure you give people the opportunity to open up to you. Even if the decision is final, you still need to make sure you present the time for feedback. This will not only put the other person at ease as they will feel heard, but it will also allow you to clear up any misunderstandings.

● Body language – Positive body language is vital for connection, and keeping your body language open is the best way to achieve this. Leaning towards the person speaking to you and offering direct eye contact with open, bright eyes will show that you’re interested. Demonstrating active listening, by using occasional prompts and repeating or reflecting on what’s being said, will also help you demonstrate empathy.

● Remembering values – It can be difficult to build empathy for people who are very different to us. It may be that someone has different values, but once you understand them, you should be able to have some respect for them.

A final word

Challenging conversations are difficult. And sometimes with the best will in the world, they don’t go to plan. You never know how someone will react to news that is hugely destabilising for them – no matter how kindly or empathetically you try to deliver it. They could clam up, shut down, get aggressive, or any other iteration and then no amount of good intention can help if they have decided to close down.

So, if this happens, ‘the unexpected’, there is also a space for empathy. Know that they are dealing with strong emotions, and may be acting out or lashing out, and rather than judge them for it, try and hold a space for them with grace and care. Try not to step into the fray if aggression emerges, but stay as kind and respectful of them and of yourself as you can.

Difficult things are not meant to be easy. But they can give us a chance to demonstrate our values, be caring and respectful and make sure our actions come from a place of grace and empathy for ourselves and our fellow humans.

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