What You Should Say When You Are Caught Off-Guard With Bad News

June 18, 2018

Here's how to respond when you are caught off-guard with unexpected bad news.

Most of us act professionally most of the time. While there are certainly exceptions, most of us do our best to be polite in the workplace, treat others with respect and keep our emotions under control.

That is, until we are hit with expected bad news. Like, an unexpected cost comes from nowhere. Or someone doesn’t deliver what they promised. Or something in the market unexpectedly changes.

In that situation, suddenly we don't act so professionally. Maybe we get angry. Maybe we make a rash decision that only makes matters worse. Or maybe we say something that permanently damages a relationship.

And our reputation goes down the drain.

Well, Tatiana Kolovou wants to help. In her LinkedIn Learning course Communication Foundations, she explains exactly what to do when you are caught off-guard with bad news.

LinkedIn Learning Instructor Tatiana Kolovou explains how to respond when you are caught off-guard with bad news in her course, Communication Foundations.

What to do when you are caught off-guard – don’t fall victim to your initial reaction

When we are hit off-guard with bad news, our initial reaction tends to be an emotional one. Don’t fall victim to this – rarely will it lead to a productive conversation, Kolovou said.

Instead, buy yourself some time before responding, allowing that emotional reaction to pass. You can do this by literally telling the person you are caught off-guard and need some time to process this. Or, ask questions, to better understand the situation and let your emotions pass.

“Calm yourself,” Kolovou said. “Take a deep breath. Possibly look away momentarily to try and focus your thoughts. Exhale deeply. All these behaviors will help you bring your elevated heart rate down and physically center you.”

If you do need to respond immediately, use this pattern to frame your answer: here’s what I know, here’s what I don’t know, here’s how I’ll find out.

An example: say someone says they need to go overbudget to complete a project on time. Rather than give into an emotional response, ask questions to better understand the situation while giving yourself time to cool off.

If you can, ask for some time to respond, so you can better think through the situation and make a decision. If you do need to respond immediately, say something like this – "I understand the driver behind this unexpected cost, I don’t know if there are other alternatives, I’ll talk with the rest of the team to figure out next steps."

How this simple advice can really help your career

Here’s a famous quote from Warren Buffett: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.” This becomes particularly true when we are hit with unexpected bad news – many of us tend to act emotionally. And while one emotional moment won't destroy your reputation, it does hurt it.

Conversely, responding calmly when unexpected bad news comes up really strengthens your reputation. It shows you are someone people can rely on, even in tough times.

So, the next time you are hit with bad news, see it as an opportunity. If you handle it with grace, you’ll establish yourself as a leader.

Want to learn more? Watch Kolovou’s full course, Communication Foundations.

Other lessons within her LinkedIn Learning course include: