How to Communicate Difficult Messages with Confidence

By Heather Campbell

Few leaders relish sharing difficult messages.

Fears about what to say, how to deal with other people’s responses, and concern for the individuals impacted, can knock even an experienced leader’s confidence.

But business is not always plain sailing, and communicating tough messages is an inevitable part of being a leader in any organisation.

At CommsMasters, we’ve helped empower leaders across many types of industries to handle these conversations well, and given them the tools they need to succeed.

Let’s take a look at some of these good practices when it comes to sharing those tough messages that we’d all rather avoid.

Be Honest

First of all, tell the truth.

I’m always concerned when leaders ask me how to put a positive spin on their message.  

Your employees are smart, competent, carefully chosen individuals who will see through your spin.

Your goal should never be to obfuscate or tell half-truths; this misleads, undermines trust and adds complication for everyone involved.

Instead, seek to be transparent.  Don’t understate the severity of the situation, empathise with the reality of people’s experiences in the light of your message, and be honest with the details that are available.

Be clear and precise in the communication

Often with good intention, it’s easy to fudge the message, leaving grey areas and space for false hope.

Avoid such mixed messages.

Focus on being clear, precise and to-the-point.

In certain situations, it may be necessary to leave some details out of the communication. You may not be able to share specific points for legal reasons, for example. At these times, it’s important to explain the limitations to the other person or people involved.

Grey areas and false hope lead people to push boundaries that aren’t negotiable, and this can lead to more damage to be undone in the end.

A good leader should be explicit about what the choices are – and where there are no choices available.

Give time and space for a response

When communicating tough messages to individuals or to a group, you must give time and space for a response.

Whether that’s questions from the group about next steps, requests for feedback, or even the ability to ask for reassurance – you need to give your team adequate opportunity to respond, and for you to respond in turn.

Your organisation has invested time, money and trust in your employees. Equally, your employees have invested their time, trust, and careers in your organisation.

In this sense, both are working together and relying on each other – and both sides should have the right to get clarification on each other’s actions and decisions.

Allow expression of emotion

Depending on the severity of the message, an emotional reaction is a natural part of bad news, disappointments and tough messages.

If your team members are comfortable enough to share their feelings, give them space to do so. Unless you are physically in danger, another person’s emotional reaction won’t hurt you – and expressing it can do them a lot of good.

Allowing expression of emotion shows that you care – closing it down too quickly distances you from the people you’re leading.

Share your own feelings

Sharing your own feelings can be a powerful way to show empathy and build trust, although you need to be careful here.

Expressing your concern for people, and acknowledging the reality and validity of their reactions, is powerful and positive.

Talking about how bad you feel or how the situation is impacting you negatively, isn’t helpful.  This isn’t about you – it’s about the people you lead.

And never blame shareholders or more senior leaders, or the mythical ‘them’ for the bad news – distancing yourself in this way is unfair and unprofessional.


The quality of your communication is important when relaying tough messages.  But this can also be a time that really challenges your confidence.

Following these points will help you maintain your confidence, secure in the knowledge that you have informed people well, set realistic expectations and stayed engaged with them.  So:

  • Be honest
  • Be clear and precise in the communication
  • Give time and space for a response
  • Allow expression of emotion
  • Share your own feelings
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