MRO Magazine

How to tell someone YOU SCREWED UP

When you need to tell someone about a problem that could have been avoided, here's a way to ease the pain for everyone. Before you explain what happened, admit up-front how serious it is, that the oth...

December 1, 2002 | By Jeff Mowatt

When you need to tell someone about a problem that could have been avoided, here’s a way to ease the pain for everyone. Before you explain what happened, admit up-front how serious it is, that the other person has every right to be angry, and that you are accepting full responsibility. Then explain the problem.

This approach often prevents the other person from over-reacting because they don’t feel obligated to point-out the ramifications or who’s to blame. You’ve already done that for them.

People are frequently weak on knowing how to diplomatically deliver bad news. Unfortunately, the task of giving bad news goes with almost every job. You may have to inform your boss the production line can’t be re-started because a needed replacement part is missing, or listen to suppliers tell you about their new price increase.

Explain the problem after you take the blame, and always give good news before bad.


Employees facing these scenarios worry that the boss might become defensive, offended, or worst of all, simply take serious disciplinary action. Employees get stressed, absenteeism and turnover increases, and relationships plummet. In other words, everyone loses. So, in our training programs we equip potential “bearers of bad news” with valuable tools to help make the process less painful for everyone. Here’s a sampling:

1. Warn in advance: When you realize that you may not be able to give the bosses what they’re expecting, give them some advance notice. Example: An insurance underwriter or broker calls his customer. “George, I’ve been looking at your application and it’s not looking very promising in terms of coverage. I’m wondering if I might have missed something….”

You can actually turn giving advance-warning into a good opportunity. For example, if you’re a supplier of components to a maintenance department, you could say: “Martin, you’re an important customer so I thought I’d better inform you about this right away. Our energy costs have almost doubled over the past year so we’re forced to put through a 10 per cent price increase effective July 1. As you order items regularly, I thought I’d better check with you to see if it would make sense to reorder now to save you money and prevent any unpleasant last-minute surprises.”

2. Accept responsibility: While serving as president of our professional speaking association, I received a ‘bad news’ call from one of our event organizers: “Jeff, I wanted to talk to you about a situation that has just come to my attention. I want you to know that I accept full responsibility for the foul-up. It was a stupid mistake that I shouldn’t have made and I will do everything that needs to be done to fix the error. What happened was ….”

Since he was already berating himself, my response could only be magnanimous. Accepting full responsibility, while recognizing the consequences of the error, shows that you’re prepared to “take your lumps” like a grown-up. People respect that.

3. Tone it down: Literally. Lower the tone of your voice and your rate of speaking. Generally when people get excited or emotional about ideas, they tend to raise their voice pitch and pace. When you’re giving bad news, you want to give the impression that you are thinking clearly, logically and reasonably — not emotionally — and certainly not irrationally. You can do this easily by slowing down the rate you’re speaking and lowering the pitch slightly. That way, you come across as the calm, quiet voice of reason.

4. Begin with the good news: When you have both good news and bad, start with the good. When people hear bad news, they have an internal stress reaction that causes them to tune-out other information. So, to ensure that the listener fully comprehends and appreciates the entire message, make sure you give the good news first.

5. Express empathy: Empathy helps soften the blow. A claims adjustor attending my seminar explained that she used to have difficulty telling clients, whose vehicles had been stolen and damaged, that they still had to pay the deductible — even though they weren’t to blame. Ironically, she’s had much better impact dealing with these customers since her aunt had a similar experience with her vehicle. Now she shares this personal experience and her clients feel less like they’ve been singled-out and victimized. Sometimes misery does love company.

6. Avoid “trigger” words: Two words that act as hot buttons — “It’s policy.” A better approach is to explain why a policy exists. Compare the word choices of two driving examiners who are dealing with a driver who rolls through a stop sign. First examiner: “You rolled through a stop sign and our ‘policy’ is to fail anyone who doesn’t come to a complete stop.” Second examiner: “The fact that you rolled through a stop sign is a safety concern that we just can’t overlook. So you didn’t qualify this time.” Same information, but the second examiner’s word choices made him sound more reasonable.

7. Express negatives as positives: Rather than saying, “Your order won’t be here until Tuesday.” Instead try, “Your order will be here as soon as Tuesday.” Same information, but wording it positively enhances customer perception.

8. Help them find an alternative: If you’re out-of-stock when the customer’s rushed, recommend your competitor. They’ll go there anyway. When you help them find another supplier, the customer associates your service with solving their problem. So, there’s a chance that they may return. In other words, you have nothing to lose and something to gain when you recommend a competitor. Besides, it’s the decent thing to do.

9. Remind them of the bigger picture: Sometimes people don’t realize that the ‘bad news’ is in their own best interest. In an example where someone’s not wearing the proper safety gear on the job, you might say to their boss, “You seem like a concerned person and I’m sure you wouldn’t want your staff to get injured.”

10. Follow-up: With some incidents, a well-timed phone call after the bad news goes a long way in proving that you’ve gone the extra mile. “I just wanted to check with you to see how things are going with that replacement item we provided….” That raises the perceived value of your work or service without spending more money.

Adapted from Influence with Ease, copyright Jeff Mowatt, syndicated columnist, business owner and international speaker. He can be reached at 800-566.9288 or at


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