Delivering bad news may not top anyone’s favorite-things list, but did you know it can be used as a weapon in a negotiation? Whether you use it to gauge a reaction, make a counteroffer, or set the stage for other news that you may have, delivering bad news is an art. Keep reading as I talk about three ways to deliver bad news and how to wield these methods in a negotiation.

1. Using the Sandwich Technique

  • Step 1: Start with a genuine compliment or positive statement
  • Step 2: Be specific and state the meat of the matter using words
  • Step 3: Suggest a way to move forward or your proposed solution

The sandwich technique can be used to deliver various kinds of bad news. Here are a few:

The Bad News:How You Can Use It:Examples:
You have to tell an employee that they’re not performing well  Get the employee to perform better“Your work at the company has been great; you are very detail-oriented and organized. However, your performance has been down recently. Let’s meet next week to discuss your next project. ”
You’re telling your boss your skills aren’t being utilized  Get that promotion you want  “I really love working here; I’ve learned so much. However, I feel like I could bring so much more to the table in a more senior role. Would I be able to schedule a performance review where we review my performance and explore growth within the company?”
You decline a sum that is offered in a negotiation  Get a better price  “I really love the features of the car; the sleek design is exactly what I’m looking for. Unfortunately, I really do not think I will be able to afford that. Is there any way we can negotiate a lower price?”
You’re increasing rent your tenants must pay  Soften the blow of increased rent to your tenants“You are a wonderful tenant; you always pay on time! However, I do want to let you know that starting next month, I have to increase the monthly rent due to the pandemic. I will send you a new contract to look over.”
You’re unable to make a paymentLower a price or buy time  “You know how I always pay on time and the full amount? Well, this month I need to ask for an extension, just for a few days. I will be able to pay the full amount in a week.”

By using the sandwich method, you can frame your bad news, constructive criticism or whatever you are trying to negotiate with a compliment that is positive, and then end with a solution. By proposing a way to move forward as the last step, you can create an actionable plan to keep the negotiation moving. This will force the person you are negotiating with to respond.

2. Use an Accusation Audit/Take the Sting Out

If you’ve ever started a sentence with “No offense but…” or “You’re going to kill me but…,” then you’re familiar with the “accusation audit” technique.

You may want to try this technique if you’re dealing with someone who has an already established negative assumption of you. For instance, if you’re trying to sell medical equipment to a doctor who is already suspicious of you and your products, you might want to state their assumption out loud and then follow it up with something more reassuring. This way, you can wield the bad news to your advantage to soften the person you’re negotiating with. Here’s an example: “You probably think I’m trying to scam you. (Pause) However, I want you know that people see real results with our products.”

You can also use an accusation audit to set and then exceed expectations by making someone think the bad news is worse that it is – so when you deliver it, it stings less and the person you’re negotiating with will think or say something along the lines of: “Oh, that’s not so bad! I thought you were going to say the whole deal is off!” An example of this type of accusation audit might go: “Alright, so you’re going to think that the company views this project as a waste of time after I tell you this. (Pause) I’m really upset about this too, but I have to cut the budget by 25% for the project you’re currently working on. “

3.  Make Observations to Prompt a Response

Say you make a calculation error in a report. Wouldn’t it feel better to receive a reply that says, “Somehow I got different numbers, let’s both recheck to see what we get again” rather than “Your calculation is wrong”? The non-accusatory approach – by making open ended observations – can work the same way. This tactic avoids putting the blame on the person you’re giving bad news to. The person you are negotiating with will also feel prompted to respond by offering their own perspective on the issue – and it’s also a great way to avoid incriminating yourself when delivering the news.

By using phrases like “It seems like” and “It looks like,” the bad news you are delivering can be softened to your advantage. For example, you can say “It seems like the team is struggling to meet deadlines recently…” rather than “You missed several deadlines recently” or “It looks like you missed the March payment for rent…” rather than “You missed the March payment, where is it?”

Now that you’re an expert on delivering bad news, I urge you to try one of these strategies the next time you’re in an uncomfortable position. Knowing how to communicate bad news is an important skill to have in your arsenal, so instead of viewing it as something to dread, try to view it as the weapon it is. Now, grab your delivering bad news tactics, use them the next time you’re in that situation, and take control of your negotiation.

[1] Read more about delivering bad news in former FBI top hostage negotiator Chris Voss’s book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended on It (HarperCollins 2016).