Critical takeaways:

  • Saying hard things will inevitably disappoint people who matter.
  • We cannot write magic words that will somehow keep people from being upset. We must own the disappointment.
  • Our five-point Framework for Saying Hard Things can help soften the blow of difficult news.

Saying hard things is inevitably going to disappoint an audience that matters to us. Disappointing people goes against our nature. We feel bad when we know we have disappointed someone who matters. It is hard for us not only as communicators but also as human beings.

Disappointment is the feeling of dissatisfaction caused by the non-fulfillment of one’s hopes and expectations. Fulfilling expectations is a key driver of reputation. 

Seth Godin has shaped my thinking about reputation and goodwill. I particularly like this definition he uses for reputation, and it really applies here. Reputation is what people expect us to do next. It’s their expectation of the quality and character of the next thing we produce or say or do. 

When we have hard things to say – we’re going to do a layoff or furlough, shut down a factory or cancel a popular program – we are fundamentally disappointing somebody who matters. The decision gets made by the C-suite, and saying hard things gets left up to us as communicators to figure out. It’s never easy, Nor should it be. If it were easy, then the people you are disappointing truly did not matter.

As communicators, I think it’s really important to recognize that people are going to be upset. So let’s label it, own it and accept that we’re not going to spin our way out of it. We cannot write magic words to destroy disappointment. We’ve got to own that we’re not going to satisfy expectations. We need to understand their feelings, knowing that reasonable people can be disappointed even if the cause is perfectly reasonable and rational, and that’s okay.

Second, because we are communicators, we have the power to soften the blow because we’ve been communicating all along (You have been, right?). Always be communicating. If you’ve been keeping your audiences apprised of the impacts COVID-19 or any other disruption is having on the organization, then it won’t come as a surprise when some hard decisions have to be made.As part of our COVID-19 webinar series, we created a five-point Framework for Saying Hard Things. Using this framework will help you craft a message that reasonable people will say came from a responsible organization. Your audience will give you the benefit of the doubt that the decision was made for good reason, even if it disappoints them.

Framework for Saying Hard Things

Above all else – and I shouldn’t need to say this – be honest. It’s your truth that you’re telling, not someone else’s perception of the truth. Get to the point upfront. There’s no reason to bury the lead. You have to deliver the news. So it’s really being honest, but also understanding while this is our truth, we have to balance their truth and the impact that this is going to have on them.

Be clear and specific. Begin with the end – a bigger picture – in mind as you craft the message. Explain the bigger picture, understand the contextualization. Remember, we’re not trying to spin our way out of saying hard things. We’re trying to be seen as rational, reasonable people doing the best we can under difficult circumstances.

Be okay with feedback and give it room. There should be an outlet for feedback. There’s something to learn when you have hard things to say, so be okay with that feedback. Don’t just ignore it because you think it will be purely negative.

Share how this impacts you and your team and create a space for empathy. There is realness to these communications, and it is okay for you, as you are understanding your truth and their truth, to relate how this impacts your team. Don’t lead with that. Your lead shouldn’t make this bad news about me. How I’m upset pales in comparison to how upset the listener will be. The bigger picture is that there will be some positivity, but right now it hurts.

Finally, keep the lines of communication open. This goes beyond just getting feedback. Keeping the lines open maintains opportunities to reverse that disappointment down the road, and it demonstrates your empathy for the people you disappointed. 

There are a lot of implications for reputation in a post-COVID world. As entrepreneur Mark Cuban said, how organizations respond and communicate to the people who matter most in the midst of COVID-19 “is going to define their brand for decades.” You may own your brand, but the public owns your reputation. 

Cuban’s advice is fitting for any situation where you have to own the disappointment. Using this framework and focusing on the bigger picture will help you as a communicator say hard things.

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