People Leadership

Tell It Slant: Best Practices for Communicating Unthinkable News

September 11, 2020

In a time of great uncertainty, people crave information. With so many unanswerable questions, any sign of sure knowledge is welcome. That said, some of those answers people clamour for are difficult, even dangerous. The information is frightening or complex or incomplete, all of which can lead to greater uncertainty rather than relief. Consequently, it might seem better simply not to provide those difficult answers at all, but this is neither a realistic nor a wise solution. As Emily Dickinson urges, you should be forthright and honest about the reality of a difficult situation, but there are methods that work for telling unthinkable truths, and methods that don’t.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

—Emily Dickinson

One temptation that leaders must resist is to conceal the truth, whether by lying or simply keeping silent about important information. Difficult news upsets people, so it’s appealing to try to avoid the issue by not bringing up the news at all, but it’s rarely possible to maintain the illusion over the long term, and the longer the deception lasts, the worse the consequences will be. Even so, the opposing strategy of telling everyone everything is also unadvisable, since employees might not have the knowledge or perspective to make sense of all the information leaders have access to, nor need all of it to make effective decisions.

Still, uncertainty causes fear, and people without information speculate to fill in the gaps. What you don’t tell them, they’ll make up, and the less you tell them, the farther afield their guesses are likely to be, leading to greater confusion and resistance. If misinformation takes hold, it can be difficult to uproot, so communicate early, before rumours spread that encourage fears and paranoia.

Few leaders have much experience sharing devastating information—and it’s not something anyone wants to have lots of practice with—but uncertainty by nature strikes us unexpectedly, and we rarely control the circumstances or events. With that in mind, we’ve outlined some steps leaders should take when they have unthinkable news to share with employees. Download our FREE Guide to Communicating Difficult News to Your Team to help you decide how much to communicate and develop a plan of action.

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