Easy Let-Downs

How to deliver uncomfy news

Categories: Perspectives — Michelle McAlister

Sometimes, things don’t go as planned, and that’s OK. It turns out, everything is in transition and rarely will any one thing stay the same or go in the direction we intended. But there is a moment, a spectacular spark of a second when we have the opportunity to say just the right thing at just the right time to welcome, apologize, or recover a little bit softer when that change happens.

But guess what? That’s also the same moment when we tend to fall apart. Emotions take over. Tempers flare. All the wrong words roll out of our mouths. It’s hard to keep a cool head when things get heated or don’t work out. What’s important is that when we talk about this uncomfortable thing, that we approach it in a kind, mostly neutral, even objective way so we’re not pointing fingers or making anyone feel bad. I know, I know. That’s the hard part. While approaches to delivering bad news varies depending on the context and culture, here are a few techniques I’ve found useful when letting someone know that something’s not quite right.

Delivering bad news

I’ve worked as a Content Strategist for almost ten years. In one of my past lives, I wrote for TurboTax, a company designed to help people file taxes on their own. A lot of taxpayers get refunds at the end of the year, but there are also those who end up owing money. Sometimes thousands. I don’t think we knew it at the time, but letting someone know that they had to pay $15,000 in back taxes taught us a thing or two about delivering news gracefully.

At Airbnb, we also have to deliver some not-so-great news from time to time. Whether it’s telling travelers that their host had to cancel a reservation, or guiding a host to tidy up their place just a bit more, delivering uncomfortable news can be what we’re tasked with on a daily basis. And you know what? The same is true in life. We can’t escape it. If we’re writing for a product or talking to someone we love, chances are we’re all bound to cover a spectrum of uncomfortable topics. Here are a few ways we can all reframe some bad news.

1. Don’t blame the listener

(Make the bad thing happen to an inanimate object)

It’s best to deliver bad news with neutral, non accusatory language that starts out with something like “It looks like…” or “It turns out…” Leading with this lets the listener or reader know that some amount of work has been done and now there’s just a logical conclusion to that work. It’s nothing personal. It’s just a result. How you finish your “It looks like…” or “It turns out…” sentence matters, too. It’s important to put the pressure on something neutral. By making the unpleasant thing happen to a third party or inanimate object, the person listening to you isn’t taking the brunt of the bad news.

Let’s stitch that all together

We’ll pretend I’m having a conversation with someone who invited me to stay at their place. In this scenario, I need to deliver the news that I’m unable to stay there because their place doesn’t have air conditioning, and since it’s in Phoenix, Arizona, there’s just no way I can swelter it out in 110 degree weather without it. How do I gracefully back out without pointing a finger or making them feel bad?

2. Invite a third party to the mix

(Add a buffer between the deliverer and the recipient)

When delivering an easy let-down, you should also put some distance between what went wrong and the person it’s happening to. In a sense, the bad news is about something that exists in between the deliverer and the recipient. Adding that third party to the bad news also helps alleviate any feelings of inadequacy or blame, which takes the pressure off the deliverer of the bad news. After all, a neutral third party simply has a preference, and it’s nothing personal between the end listener and the person they’re talking to or the product they’re using.

Now let’s put that together

Let’s say I’ve just received an invite to something I’m not so sure about. I’d like to back out, but I don’t want to unnecessarily create a divide or make someone feel personally turned down. While being direct has its place, there’s also a time for softer solutions.

3. Always say why

(Never leave someone hanging)

After you deliver that bad news, make sure you give a reason why so no one is left endlessly wondering. It helps the receiver of the news to move forward, make an adjustment, or pitch in the towel. You’ll notice in the examples above, that a ‘why’ always follows the easy let-down.

Whether you’re setting boundaries at work or navigating a sticky situation at home, these techniques can help you frame up some not-so-good news. Keep in mind, there’s always a place for a firm, direct response, but there are also those times that call for a gentler, kinder, more strategic way to let someone down without creating an unintended, subtle little pinprick of a feeling.


Michelle McAlister is a Content Strategy Manager at Airbnb. When not writing, she's usually out walking her little rescue dog, Willow. She's also walked over 2,000 miles across France, Italy, and Spain, so she knows a thing or two about pain.

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