The One Phrase That Makes It Easier to Share Bad News

It’s hard to know when you should check in to make sure relationships are working. Use this magic phrase as a template.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #417

In my previous episode on how to make relationships and business stronger with one Magic Sentence, we learned about the Magic Sentence, “What I’m afraid to tell you is…” But just using that sentence in general brings up what’s top-of-mind. As any first year brain surgery resident can tell you, there’s a lot more to the mind than top-of-mind. There’s middle-of-mind, bottom-of-mind, and right-underneath-that-weird-wiggly-thing-of-mind. And all of that may also be relevant. You want to dig it all out, so make sure your check-ins are doing justice to the entire relationship. And while a surgeon can use a scalpel to do the digging, and Hannibal Lector can use his fingers, you and I have to use the Magic Sentence “What I’m afraid to tell you is…” in several ways, if we want to be sure we’re being complete with our check-ins and covering all the bases.

Share Bad News About the Business

First, complete the sentence about your business. It can be scary to be the bringer of bad news. In ancient times, people would be drawn, quartered, and skinned alive for bearing bad news. In modern corporations, we’re better than that. We welcome bad news, and deeply appreciate the ability to take early action on worrisome trends. Bearers of bad news are often given promotions for their courage in broaching hard topics, and they’re always promoted, admired, and given large bonuses. They earn the respect of their friends, family, and colleagues … JUST KIDDING!!!! We insult them, say they aren’t team players, and try to get them fired. We don’t draw and quarter them, though, because that’s illegal in most states.

Use the Magic Sentence as a chance to deliver bad news. “What I’m afraid to tell you is … that our #1 job candidate, who we took a year to find, just got eaten by a great white shark while celebrating their job acceptance on a Caribbean cruise.” If you’re the person who likes to eviscerate the bearer of bad news, train your team members to use the Magic Sentence as a chance to hear bad news. And don’t destroy their careers when they deliver it.

Share Issues About Roles and Responsibilities

You can share any problems you’re having about how responsibilities are shared. When Bernice’s plant store Green Growing Things lost clients due to a computer system glitch, her beloved IT-geek fiancee Melvin fixed it right up. Then when Bernice needed help with blog posts, she sent an outline of the posts to Melvin to type in. Then when she was scouting for new plants for the store from her good friend Dr. Moreau, she asked him to take over writing blog posts entirely. Melvin’s doing it all, but he isn’t happy with his suddenly over-the-top workload.

So at their check-in, he says, “What I’m afraid to tell you is that I’m overworked. I need to write Green Growing Things blog posts. But I’m frustrated because I’m an IT guy, not a writer. I can fix your system, but someone else needs to do the writing.” Well phrased, there’s no blame, Melvin has named his feelings, and has delivered the information in a neutral voice tone. For tips on how to phrase your check in items, see part 1 of this episode.

Share Interpersonal Issues

If your Magic Sentence colleague is someone you’re friends with (or shmoopies with), use the check-in to bring up relationship problems so you make sure you stay friends! During these check-ins it’s totally OK to field different kinds of issues you might have interpersonally.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.