Following this decision tree will help you decide whether the direct or indirect approach is better in a given situation. Of course, use your best judgment as well. Your relationship with the audience could affect your choice of approaches, for example.
Should you apologize when delivering bad news? The answer isn’t quite as simple as one might think, partly because the notion of apology is hard to pin down. To some people, it simply means an expression of sympathy that something negative has happened to another person. At the other extreme, it means admitting fault and taking responsibility for specific compensations or corrections to atone for the mistake.
Some experts have advised that a company should never apologize, even when it knows it has made a mistake, as the apology might be taken as a confession of guilt that could be used against the company in a lawsuit. However, several states have laws that specifically prevent expressions of sympathy from being used as evidence of legal liability. In fact, judges, juries, and plaintiffs tend to be more forgiving of companies that express sympathy for wronged parties; moreover, an apology can help repair a company’s reputation. Some prosecutors have begun pressing executives to publicly admit guilt and apologize as part of the settlement of criminal cases—unlike the common tactic of paying fines but refusing to admit any wrongdoing.2
Apologies can have legal ramifications, but refusing to apologize out of fear of admitting guilt can damage a company’s relationships with its stakeholders.
The best general advice in the event of a serious mistake or accident is to immediately and sincerely express sympathy and offer help if appropriate, without admitting guilt; then seek the advice of your company’s lawyers before elaborating. As one survey concluded, “The risks of making an apology are low, and the potential reward is high.”3
If you do apologize, make it a real apology. Don’t say “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” by what you did—this statement implies that you’re not sorry at all and that it’s the other party’s fault for being offended.4 For example, when Sony’s PlayStation Network was breached and disabled by hackers, CEO Howard Stringer included the following statement in a post on the company’s blog: “As a company we—and I—apologize for the inconvenience and concern caused by this attack.”5 Note that he did not say “if anyone was inconvenienced” or “if the attack caused any concern.”
Note that you can also express sympathy with someone’s plight without suggesting that you are to blame. For example, if a customer damaged a product through misuse and suffered a financial loss as a result of not being able to use the product, you can say something along the lines of “I’m sorry to hear of your difficulties.” This demonstrates sensitivity without accepting blame.
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Closing on a Respectful Note
After you’ve explained the negative news, close the message in a manner that respects the impact the negative news is likely to have on the recipient. If appropriate, consider offering your readers an alternative solution if you can and if doing so is a good use of your time. Look for opportunities to include positive statements, but avoid creating false hopes or writing in a way that seems to suggest that something negative didn’t just happen to the recipient. Ending on a false positive can leave readers feeling “disrespected, disregarded, or deceived.”6
In many situations, an important aspect of a respectful close is describing the actions being taken to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Offering such explanations can underline the sincerity of an apology because doing so signals that the person or organization is serious about not repeating the error.
Using the Indirect Approach for Negative Messages
Learning Objective 3
Explain how to use the indirect approach effectively when conveying negative news.
The indirect approach helps prepare readers for the bad news by presenting the reasons for it first. However, the indirect approach is not meant to obscure bad news, delay it, or limit your responsibility. Rather, the purpose of this approach is to ease the blow and help readers accept the situation. When done poorly, the indirect approach can be disrespectful and even unethical. But when done well, it is a good example of audience-oriented communication crafted with attention to ethics and etiquette. Showing consideration for the feelings of others is never dishonest.
Use the indirect approach when some preparation will help your audience accept your bad news.
Opening with a Buffer
Messages using the indirect approach open with a buffer: a neutral, noncontroversial statement that establishes common ground with the reader (refer to Figure 9.1). A good buffer can express your appreciation for being considered (if you’re responding to a request), assure the reader of your attention to the request, or indicate your understanding of the reader’s needs. A good buffer also needs to be relevant and sincere.
A well-written buffer establishes common ground with the reader.
In contrast, a poorly written buffer might trivialize the reader’s concerns, divert attention from the problem with insincere flattery or irrelevant material, or mislead the reader into thinking your message actually contains good news.
Poorly written buffers mislead or insult the reader.
Consider these possible responses to a manager of another department who requested some temporary staffing help from your department (a request you won’t be able to fulfill):
Our department shares your goal of processing orders quickly and efficiently.
As a result of the last downsizing, every department in the company is running shorthanded.
You folks are doing a great job over there, and I’d love to be able to help out.
Those new state labor regulations are driving me crazy over here; how about in your department?
Establishes common ground with the reader and validates the concerns that prompted the original request—without promising a positive answer
Establishes common ground, but in a negative way that downplays the recipient’s concerns
Potentially misleads the reader into concluding that you will comply with the request
Trivializes the reader’s concerns by opening with an irrelevant issue
Only the first of these buffers can be considered effective; the other three are likely to damage your relationship with the other manager—and lower his or her opinion of you. Table 9.2 shows several types of effective buffers you could use to tactfully open a negative message.
Given the damage that a poorly composed buffer can do, consider every buffer carefully before you send it. Is it respectful? Is it relevant? Does it avoid any chance of misleading the reader? Does it provide a smooth transition to the reasons that follow? If you can answer yes to every question, you can proceed confidently to the next section of your message. However, if any nagging doubts suggest that your buffer sounds insincere or misleading, it probably is, in which case you’ll need to rewrite it.
Providing Reasons and Additional Information
An effective buffer serves as a transition to the next part of your message, in which you build up the explanations and information that will culminate in your negative news. An ideal explanation section leads readers to your conclusion before you come right out and say it. In other words, the reader has followed your line of reasoning and is ready for the answer. By giving your reasons effectively, you help maintain focus on the issues at hand and defuse the emotions that always accompany significantly bad news. In the blog post that announced Chargify’s new pricing model (see page 251), for example, CEO Lance Walley explained how the company’s costs had risen as it worked to improve the reliability and security of its services.7
Phrase your reasons to signal the negative news ahead
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