Framing an unpopular message

Got a difficult message to deliver? Here are some tips for telling people what they don’t want to hear.

If you need to break bad news, you need to frame your message carefully. Framing is all about choosing the right words – the words which will minimise resistance to your message. Giving bad news is never fun. Whether you’re telling someone they didn’t get the job or that their work isn’t up to scratch, you’ll probably be choosing your words carefully. Here’s how to frame your message effectively.

Keep it simple and direct

Don’t beat around the bush. Come straight to the point when giving bad news. People won’t listen to longwinded explanations if they sense that bad news is coming. But they will want reasons once they’ve processed the news. So be prepared to explain your position and make time for questions later on.

Avoid spin

Many people try to soften the blow of bad news by pretending it involves a positive message. Bad news is still bad news, no matter what the spin. If you’re obviously using positive framing to hide or misrepresent bad news, people will see through you. 

Positive framing is valuable if it’s sincere and relevant. It’s often also successful if some good can genuinely come from a situation. Giving people realistic options for their next steps is an example of positive framing.

Beware assumptions

Before announcing unpopular news, you’ll have your own take on the situation. You’ll have an opinion about the situation, what has happened and what needs to happen now. These assumptions can be dangerous. They can make your framing rigid. Keep your language open and flexible. For example say ‘Let’s think about all the options available to us’ rather than saying ‘The only option we have is…’

Lead to success stories

Remember that challenges and unpopular decisions often lead to change and success. Tell people how a stress-provoking situation can be turned around. Give them examples of people who have made the most of similar situations. Keep your language optimistic and realistic.

Need advice on what to say? Ask Eleanor now. Send your question and we’ll answer it in a future blog post.

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