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How good people deliver bad news in the workplace


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Jessica Roper, Director of Career Services

Jessica Roper, MBA, Director of Career Services

At a glance

  • Difficult workplace conversations occur at all levels, from performance feedback to employment terminations.
  • Successfully approaching difficult conversations requires both parties (but especially the facilitator!) to have an open mind and practice empathy and respect.
  • Framing a conversation in a win-lose way, or with preconceived ideas, sets your encounter up for anger and conflict.
  • University of Phoenix students and graduates don’t have to navigate the workforce alone. Learn more about Career Services for Life®!

This article was updated on December 1, 2023.

What is a difficult conversation?

Anxiousness, anger, halting words, the wrong words — sound familiar? Those are some of the hallmarks of a difficult conversation. Even if you can’t exactly define a difficult conversation, most people have no trouble identifying one. Maybe the word that best sums it up is uncomfortable.

In the workplace, there’s no shortage of opportunities to engage in these sorts of discussions. Take, for example, the following instances:

  • You have to receive negative feedback from your manager.
  • You have to tell your manager you feel unsupported.
  • You have to hold a co-worker accountable.
  • You have to fire an employee.

Say the wrong thing in these situations, and you could find yourself aboard a runaway train of escalated emotions. But handled well, these same difficult conversations can lead to personal and professional growth. Here’s how to get there.

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3 good rules for giving bad news

Dean Aslinia, PhD

Dean Aslinia, PhD, is familiar with difficult conversations. As a practicing therapist and the associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix, he’s had both practical and theoretical training when it comes to navigating the choppy waters of conflicting interests.

In Aslinia’s experience, there are three rules to follow whenever a situation calls for a difficult conversation.

1. Enter the conversation with a neutral stance

Consider this example: Brad and Jennifer worked together on a project that failed to meet its objectives. Their manager, Neil, needs to explain how it fell short and then identify a path forward.

If Neil enters that conversation with an assumption that either Brad or Jennifer is to blame, or that he already knows why the project failed, he unintentionally closes himself off to new information.

“It’s very helpful for a mediator to remain neutral and hear all parties before rushing to judgment,” Aslinia explains.

This applies to one-to-one conversations as well. If you enter a conversation with the conscious or subconscious aim of convincing the other person of your conclusion, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Instead, ask questions with an eye toward gaining perspective and information.

As noted in Harvard Business Review, “Instead of focusing on what you’re going to say, focus more on what you’re hearing from the other person.”

Another way to put it? Keep an open mindbe curious and leave any defensiveness behind.

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2. Practice empathy, non-judgment and respect

“These are the main tenets of person-centered therapy,” Aslinia says. “In reality, they are the core principles of human connection.”

That includes conversations you’d rather not have. If you need to tell your co-worker her comments in a client meeting were unprofessional, think about how she could receive that information and grow from it.

One way might be to have the conversation privately soon after the remarks were made, and approach it from an “I” perspective.

“I noticed you said X, and I think it would better help us meet our goals if we avoid such comments and subjects with clients in the future” is easier for someone to hear than “You were really unprofessional back there. You might lose us the account now.”

3. Be direct

There’s a reason honesty is both precious and rare. It’s hard. But it’s also the best course of action when delivering bad news. (Or in pretty much any other situation.)

Don’t sugarcoat the message!” Aslinia emphasizes. “Tackle the issue. This might be the most difficult step, but until the issue is unwrapped, there can be no solution.”

Let’s say you have to terminate someone’s employment. The person, who probably knows what’s coming as soon as the invitation to meet with you and HR lands in her inbox, does not want to hear a preamble. She does not want to hear euphemisms. She wants to know what she suspects is true so that she can start taking next steps.

Even if the conversation is less dire than a termination, hedging only gets in the way. If you have to tell an employee she did a poor job on a presentation, don’t prolong the inevitable with opaque language and modifiers. “Your presentation had some good nuggets, and maybe you could review it to make sure you have the latest data available” is a lot harder to grow from than “This was a good start, but you need to practice your delivery to improve your confidence. We also need to update your data on slides 2 through 5. Let’s set up a working session to address the information part.”

“It’s often harder to do the right thing,” Aslinia concedes. “But while it might consume more time and energy, it communicates respect to a fellow human.”

So, be kind — but be direct.

What not to do

Arguably the worst way to approach a tough conversation is to set it up as a confrontation. The experts call this a binary framework: One person is right, the other is wrong. In that situation, there isn’t always a winner. Sometimes you reach a stalemate.

Either way, the goal of any conversation needs to be edification and progress. So, here’s a short list of things to avoid:

  • Assumptions: You actually don’t know everything. Proceed accordingly.
  • Dishonesty: Whether directly or by omission, mendacity undermines progress and relationships. Yes, sometimes the truth hurts. It is also necessary.
  • Blame: Accountability and responsibility are not the same as blame, which makes people feel bad without offering a clear pathway toward improvement.
  • Closed-mindedness: Keeping an open mind about all the factors in a given situation lets you also think broadly about solutions.
  • Defensiveness: You are not your work, your title or your opinions. Neither is the person you’re talking to. The conversation doesn’t have to be personal. It needs to be professional and productive.

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The outcomes that make tough conversations worth it

Working at honest communication, even when it’s to deliver bad news, offers its own set of benefits. According to Aslinia, these are:

  • Stress reduction: While anticipating and having a difficult conversation can cause some stress, that stress disappears once the exchange is over. Avoiding
  • Improved productivity: With crystal communication and aligned expectations, you and your co-workers better understand when, how and where to support one another.
  • Better company culture: You are your company. When you can have honest, open communication, even when it’s potentially awkward, you help shape the company culture for the better.

Not convinced? Then consider this example from Aslinia, who recalls a particular termination meeting with a co-worker.

“The employee being laid off was very upset and had taken the termination of employment very personally,” he says. “This is where lots of silence (to provide her the space to say her piece) and empathy (for us to put ourselves in that individual’s shoes and to cognitively understand her difficult predicament) paid off. She was able to understand the situation better, and once we understood her situation, we were actually able to provide her other resources and leads for next steps in her life. Bottom line is we all want to be valued and respected.”

Career resources at University of Phoenix

Don’t embark on your career journey alone! University of Phoenix equips its students and graduates with the following resources to help them on their professional paths.

  • Career Services for Life®: Available to UOPX students and graduates, this offering comprises complimentary career coaching, including guidance on how to build a personal brand and write a resumé.
  • Free career resources: Browse a range of downloadable guides and templates to help you optimize your LinkedIn® profile, get ready for a job interview and write a resumé and cover letter.
  • Career With Confidence™ newsletter: Get career insights every week via UOPX’s LinkedIn newsletter.


Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories since she won a writing contest in third grade. In the intervening years, she's covered design and architecture, travel, parenting, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors. Today, if given a free hour and the choice, she'd still prefer to curl up with a good story.


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