Find Mediators Near You:

Delivering Bad News In Negotiation: 3 More Tips

From John DeGroote’s Settlement Perspectives

Bad News Comes in Many Forms
Last week we discussed why a small group is usually a better audience for bad news in Delivering Bad News:  How Big Is Your Conference Room? Yet if small group delivery is not an option, what else can you do to get a difficult message across?  Three tactics come to mind.

Manage Expectations

Long Before the Mediation Starts. Last year I wrote Managing Expectations:  An Unexpected Lesson on the Bus to Hertz, and the lesson holds true in conference rooms, too.  Not so long ago I had a case against an online retailer whose CEO enjoyed an irrational confidence in his case. With our mediation just a month away, I knew we had to move the CEO much closer to reality to get the case settled.  Rather than surprise him at mediation with documents and bad facts he hadn’t yet seen — like the guys in my post last week did to me — I spent a great deal of time assembling a letter to the other side that carefully walked the CEO through the evidence in advance.  While it took a lot more than a letter to settle our case, the CEO’s ability to see the dispute from my perspective was an essential first step.

Why Manage Expectations in the First Place? We have discussed why managing expectations is so important here and here, and Phyllis Pollack has a a great post on it, too, but to sum it up you should manage the other side’s expectations when you can so your opponents will be able to:

  • warn others with a stake in the outcome early – their shareholders, their bosses, their insurers, their spouses and more;
  • decide whether the amount of time, money and effort to be spent on the case needs to be adjusted; and
  • get used to the idea themselves.

The last of these bullets leads us to the concept of acceptance time.

Build in Acceptance Time

You’ve heard it before when bad news arrives:  “He’ll get over it,” or “Time heals all wounds.”  That’s because bad news takes time to process — acceptance time, according to Chester Karrass on Negotiation Space:

In any negotiation both parties walk into the negotiation with what may be somewhat unrealistic goals. Each party might have misconceptions and bad assumptions. During the process of negotiation . . . we discover that some of our expectations may not be met. Some of our wishes go away and some things may be impossible at this point in time.  . . .

Can we as negotiators expect the other party to adjust and accept new and undesired realities immediately? Of course not. Resistance to change is universal. It takes time to get used to ideas that are foreign or unpleasant.

While you can find our earlier discussion on acceptance time here, the ultimate point is this: Since it takes time to get accustomed to bad news, consider delivering your bad news in advance of your negotiation session.

Allow the Other Party’s Negotiator to Save Face

Saving Face:  The Concept. The negotiator’s need to save face is simple, yet it remains one of the most underestimated factors in negotiation:

Often in a negotiation people will continue to hold out not because the proposal on the table is inherently unacceptable, but simply because they want to avoid the feeling or the appearance of backing down to the other side.

Fisher and Ury’s words — and the rest of Getting to Yes — are almost 30 years old, but many still hope to embarrass the other side with a big reveal of bad news as the parties get together.  Their efforts would be better spent helping the other side save face than lose it.

How? The best way to help the other side avoid losing face is to manage expectations and build in acceptance time, discussed above.  But there will be times when the parties are across the table and bad news has to be delivered on the fly.  If you can, ask for a break and walk down the hall with the other side’s negotiator to tell her the news while everyone else scrambles for the conference room cookies — this built-in break will itself allow her to manage her own team’s expectations, as well.

If you must deliver bad news real time . . .. If you must deliver bad news to the other side in real time, think about how you deliver it.  In a recent post, Negotiation Space gives us suggestions on phrases that can help the other negotiator save face.  While I like theirs, the following are a few I have used — with sincerity — in the past:

  • “We’re all working real time here, but you should know that I just learned . . ..”
  • “That’s what I thought at first, but we were able to interview Ms. [Smith], and she tells us . . ..”
  • “My math was a little different.  If I can walk you through how I got there maybe we can figure out where the discrepancies are.”
  • “I see where you are coming from, but when we looked at it we saw . . ..”

As always, this is a nonexhaustive list, but there’s a theme here:  The other side’s negotiator gets a pass for not knowing what you’re about to say — so her team will work with her to solve the problem rather than spend time wondering why she didn’t know the bad facts before now.

Find a way to deliver your bad news more effectively.  You’ll be glad you did.


John DeGroote

John serves as a mediator and arbitrator in complex business, technology, and intellectual property matters involving parties and interests around the country and beyond — often before litigation is filed. Prior to his service as a mediator and arbitrator, John served as the lead settlement negotiator in hundreds of cases,… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Resistance To Change

From John Folk-Williams's blog Cross Collaborate I’ve been following some excellent posts about resistance to change initiatives, such as those at Holger Naumeier’s Change Management Blog and Jack Vinson’s Knowledge...

By John Folk-Williams

It’s All about the Relationship

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack In 2000, I decided to move away from practicing law because I got tired of fighting with opposing counsel and being labeled and...

By Phyllis Pollack

Jen Reynolds (Oregon) – How Commitments Shape Interests

ADR Prof Blog by Andrea Schneider, Michael Moffitt, Sarah Cole,Art Hinshaw, Jill Gross, Jen Reynolds, and Cynthia Alkon. How to negotiate durable agreements. People can want to change but may...