5 tips for delivering difficult change messages

Difficult conversations

I’m not sure that I can start a blog about this without reiterating what we all know, that organisational change is complex and messy to get right. It’s not linear, the emotion it evokes is not always rational and nobody seems to have that silver bullet. Feels a bit negative I know, but it’s the reality. The question is, what do we do about it? Recently I’ve explored with clients the reasons why developing a compelling story for change is so critical. People need something visionary and meaningful that engages hearts and minds. But, at the same time, let’s not forget that delivering difficult messages properly is just as critical and, in those moments, a visionary story plays little or no part.


For me, preparing to deliver difficult news involves five things:

1. Setting the right time aside to prepare and deliver the message

It doesn’t matter if you think you know the message inside out. Taking time to consider your words carefully, finding the right physical space and choosing the most appropriate time to deliver the message are crucial. Unintended harm happens when difficult messages are rushed or ill-planned. Words matter. Timing matters.

2. Starting by saying you have some difficult news to share.

It helps to set expectations as early in the conversation as possible. Any ‘filling’ words said after this introduction are unlikely to be absorbed properly so getting quickly and carefully to the crux of the news is important.

3. Being as clued up as possible on somebody’s likely emotional reaction.

The neuropsychology of change tells us that change challenges our basic need for various things. As humans, we’re hard-wired to be cautious about change and often see it as a threat. When thinking about the person with whom you need to share difficult news, consider which of these areas is most likely to trigger a threat response. It is about a threat to their Status, a discomfort with no Certainty, a feared lack of Autonomy, a prospect of reduced collaboration and Relatedness or simply a question of Fairness. Understanding this will help you choose your words carefully and respond according. If, for example, somebody feels something is unfair, explaining thoroughly how the decision has been taken in an impartial and robust manner will be critical.

4. Finding the balance between making the message clear yet easy to swallow. 

There is always a balance to strike between delivering a message in its most blunt form to ensure no meaning is lost and the often natural human instinct to ‘sugar coat’ a message to make it metaphorically easier to swallow. This takes careful consideration. When helping people to prepare to deliver tough news I always ask them to consider who they are sugar coating the message for. Too often, it’s for the deliver themselves so that they feel better and think that the news is more palatable to share. Don’t forget, the most important person is the person receiving the news so how they would like to hear it is far more import than what it may feel like to say it.

5. Being comfortable with discomfort.

Building on my fourth point. Get comfortable with discomfort. This message is far less hard-hitting for you than for the recipient so be prepared to deal with somebody feeling or showing upset. Learn how to manage it with empathy while still owning the message thoroughly.