4.6 Direct and Indirect Negative Messaging

Venecia Williams and Nia Sonja

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to

  • Explain the structural differences between direct and indirect messages
  • Identify situations in which the direct approach is the most appropriate
  • Identify situation in which the indirect approach is the best choice

When you are delivering news or information that may be considered “negative” (news that may damage the relationship with the recipient), you will choose between a direct organizational strategy (with the negative information first) or indirect strategy (with the explanation preceding the bad news).

Direct Delivery

When is it right to deliver negative news using the direct approach? Are there occasions where you can or should be upfront about news that may affect the relationship with the employer, client, or colleague? In many situations, yes, it’s certainly appropriate to deliver bad news by getting right to the point. In these situations, the relationship may not be seriously threatened by the negative information, the audience may prefer direct communication, or, perhaps, the relationship has to come to a necessary end.

In the following situations, direct messaging of negative information may be appropriate:

When the bad news isn’t that bad: In the case of small price or rate increases, customers won’t be devastated by having to pay more. Indeed, inflation makes such increases an expected fact of life.

If your job involves routinely delivering criticism because you’re a Quality Assurance specialist, the people who are used to receiving recommendations to improve their work will appreciate the direct approach. Some organizations even require direct-approach communications for bad news as a policy because it is more time-efficient.

When you know that the recipient prefers or requires the direct approach: Though the indirect approach is intended as a nice way to deliver bad news, some people would rather you be blunt. Since a message must always be tailored to the audience, getting permission for taking the direct approach is your cue to follow through with exactly that. Not doing so will arouse the angry response you would have expected otherwise.

When the indirect approach hasn’t worked: If this is the third time you’ve had to tell a client to pay their invoice and the first two were nicely-worded indirect messages that the recipient ignored, it is time to issue a stern warning of the consequences of not paying. You may need to threaten legal action or say you’ll refer the account to a collection agency, and you may need to put it in bold so that you’re sure the reader won’t miss it.

When the reader may miss the bad news: You may determine from profiling your audience that they might not understand the indirect-approach bad news. Some readers may not pick up on the buried bad news.

In using the direct approach, follow this structure:

Indirect Delivery

If you tactlessly deliver bad news, you run the risk of your audience rejecting or misunderstanding it. They may react to the news with anger or sadness and be unable to rationally process the explanation or instructions for what to do about the bad news. A doctor never delivers a really serious diagnosis by coming right out and saying “You have a serious illness!” first thing. Instead, they try to put a positive spin on the results (“It could be worse”), discuss test results in detail, talk about treatment options, and only then come around to telling the patient the bad news.

Key to avoiding misunderstandings when delivering bad news, then, is the following four-part organization: buffer, justification, bad news and redirection, and positive close.

Message Buffer

Begin with a neutral or positive statement that sets a welcoming tone and serves as a buffer for the information to come. A buffer softens the blow of bad news like the airbag in a car softens the driver’s collision with the steering wheel in a high-speed car accident. If there is any positive news that can calm the receiver, here at the beginning would be a good time to point it out. The following are some possible buffer strategies:

  • Good news: If there’s good news and bad news, start with the good news.
  • Compliment: If you’re rejecting someone’s application, for instance, start by complimenting them on their efforts and other specific accomplishments you were impressed by in their application.
  • Gratitude: Say thanks for whatever positive things the recipient has done in your dealings with them. If they’ve submitted a claim that doesn’t qualify for an adjustment, for instance, thank them for choosing your company.
  • Agreement: Before delivering bad news that you’re sure the recipient is going to disagree with and oppose, start with something you’re sure you both agree on. Start on common ground by saying, “We can all agree that . . . .”
  • Facts: If positives are hard to come by, starting with cold, hard facts, is the next best thing.
  • Understanding: Again, if there is no positive news to point to, showing you care by expressing sympathy and understanding is a possible alternative (Guffey et al. 2016, p. 194).

The idea here is not to deceive the audience into thinking that only good news is coming but to put them in a receptive frame of mind for understanding the explanation that follows. If you raise the expectation that they’re going to hear good news only to let them down near the end, they’re going to be even more disappointed. If you deliver the bad news right away, however, they may be more distracted with emotion to rationally process the explanation or instructions for what to do about the bad news.


The justification explains the background or context for the bad news before delivering the bad news itself.

Let’s say that you must reject an application or claim for a refund. In such cases, the explanation could describe the strict acceptance criteria and high quality of applications received in the competition or the reasons for the company. Your goal with the explanation is to be convincing so that the reader says, “That sounds reasonable” and accepts the bad news as inevitable given the situation you describe. On the other hand, if you make the bad news seem like mysterious and arbitrary decision-making, your audience will probably feel like they’ve been treated unfairly and might even escalate further with legal action or avenge the wrong in social media. While an explanation is ethically necessary, before admitting or implying any responsibility for the problem consult your supervisor.

To make the justification more agreeable, focus on benefits. If you’re informing employees that they will have to pay double for parking passes next year in an attempt to reduce the number of cars filling up the parking lot, you could sell them on the  environmental benefit of fewer cars polluting the atmosphere or the cost savings of public transport. If you’re informing a customer asking why a product or service can’t include additional features, you could say that adding those features would drive the cost up and you would rather respect your customer’s pocketbooks by keeping the product or service more affordable. Try to pitch an agreeable, pro-social or progressive benefit rather than saying that you’re merely trying to maximize company or shareholder profits.

Bad News and Redirection

Burying the statement of bad news in the message is a defining characteristic of the indirect approach. It is akin to the “sandwich technique” of constructive criticism in which the critique is sandwiched between statements of praise. Far from intending to hide the bad news, the indirect approach frames the bad news so that it can be properly understood and its negative impact minimized.

The goal is also to be clear in expressing the bad news so that it isn’t misunderstood while also being sensitive to your reader’s feelings. If you’re rejecting a job applicant, for instance, you can be clear that they didn’t get the job without bluntly saying “You failed to meet our criteria” or “You won’t be working for us anytime soon.” Instead, you can clearly imply it by putting the bad news in a subordinate clause in the passive voice:

Though another candidate was hired for the position this time…

The passive voice enables you to draw attention away from your own role in rejecting the applicant, as well as away from the rejected applicant in the context of the competition itself.  The subordinate clause lessens the impact.

Redirection is key to this type of bad news’ effectiveness because it quickly shifts the reader’s attention to an alternative to what they were seeking in the first place. Some kind of consolation prize (e.g., a coupon or store credit) helps soothe the pain and will be appreciated as being better than nothing, at least. Even if you’re not able to offer the reader anything of value, you could at least say something nice. In that case, completing the sentence in the previous paragraph with an active-voice main clause could go as follows:

. . . we wish you success in your continued search for employment.

This way, you avoid using negative language while still clearly rejecting the applicant.

Positive Action Closing

The closing should include actionable information. If your redirection involves some alternative, such as a recommendation to apply elsewhere, some follow-up details here would help the reader focus on the future elsewhere rather than getting hung up on you and your company’s decision.

Your goals in the closing are to

  • Ensure that the reader understands the bad news without rehashing it
  • Remain courteous, positive, and forward-looking
  • End the conversation in such a way that you don’t invite further correspondence

The first and last goals are important because you don’t want the reader to respond asking you to clarify anything. The second goal is important because you ultimately want to appear respectable and avoid giving the reader a reason to smear your reputation in social media or proceed with legal action against you.

Click on the buttons in the example below for an explanation of each section.

In this course presentation, you will be asked to think about whether a direct or indirect approach is most appropriate. Be sure to work through to Slide 7.



Guffey, M. E., & Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of Business Communication. Toronto, Ontario: Nelson.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Building Relationships With Business Communication Copyright © 2021 by Venecia Williams and Nia Sonja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book