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  • Writer's pictureChristy Murdock

10 Rules for Communicating Bad News

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

This article was last updated Aug. 19, 2023.

We've all heard the saying, "Don't shoot the messenger." It's an idea that goes all the way back to ancient written records from Greece and China.

Because of the tendency of people to blame the bearer of bad news, many of us are reluctant to talk to a client or colleague when we have something negative to impart.

The past few years have brought more than their fair share of bad news, from COVID-related illnesses to COVID-related shutdowns and disruptions. In real estate, the news has been a mixed bag: While your sellers have been thrilled with the record-setting home values they've experienced, your buyers have probably had plenty of frustrations and disappointments.

As we move through a 2023 with continuing low inventory, you may be having some uncomfortable conversations with your clients. You may have sellers with unrealistic expectations or buyers who are having to hear over and over that their offer lost out to someone else. You may have some clients who can't find the home of their dreams and others who simply can't make the numbers work any longer because of high prices and interest rates.

When you need to have an uncomfortable conversation with a client, their response will be impacted by the way you deliver the bad news. Here are some best practices to help you tell the truth while keeping the lines of communication open for the future.

Try to talk in person or on the phone, if possible.

While time is of the essence in real estate transactions, bad news should be delivered face-to-face or on the phone if at all possible. This is because there will no doubt be questions and discussions that need to occur once clients have received and processed the information. While you may feel more comfortable communicating via email or text, clients may see that as a way to hide from their reaction.

If you want to keep a record of your communication in writing (always a good idea) deliver the news verbally first, then follow up with an email to outline the information and subsequent discussion. Include any decisions, resolutions or action items that result from your conversation, as well.

Minimize distractions and interruptions.

There is nothing worse than being in an emotionally charged conversation and having the phone ring or a colleague knock on the door. If at all possible, avoid interruptions while you are having a sensitive discussion.

Put your phone on Do Not Disturb and, if necessary, put a sign on the door of your office or conference room. If you're having your discussion in a restaurant or coffee shop, choose a table that's well away from others and ask the server to give you a few minutes alone without interruptions.

Use plain language and avoid jargon.

This is no time to lapse into insider language, technical jargon, acronyms or legal terms. Speak plainly so that your clients will understand what you are trying to communicate.

Remember, they will be processing throughout the conversation. If they have to keep interrupting you to ask what a term means, that will delay their ability to take the information on board.

Come from a place of empathy.

If a deal feel through, you are probably worried about how it will impact you. Maybe you were counting on that commission. Maybe you're afraid of a negative online review or the loss of a valued client.

You must put all of that aside and focus on the needs of the person in front of you. Put yourself into their mindset. How will this affect them personally? Financially? Emotionally? What does this mean for their family? The more you can walk the walk with them, the more likely you are to retain their trust and their business.

Be solutions-oriented, when possible.

If there is a solution, try to get to that information as soon as possible in the conversation. You may even want to begin by saying, "Something has come up but I want you to know we have good options available." That way they can move toward a solution as soon as possible rather than spending time in fear and panic.

Sometimes there is no good solution to the problem at hand. In this case, provide whatever options are available in a straightforward manner so that your clients have a sense of clarity about their next steps.

Take responsibility where appropriate.

It is never easy to admit when you've made a mistake but you must take responsibility where it's appropriate. Perhaps you underestimated what it would take to win in that multiple-offer situation. Maybe you missed a deadline. Maybe you overestimated the value the market would place on a listing. Whatever the case, if you bear responsibility, you need to admit that.

The reality is that your clients are probably already aware of what you've said and done and will view you with suspicion if you don't cop to your part in the current situation. By being honest, you build trust and let them know that you're on their side.

Avoid placing blame on others.

At the same time, when something goes wrong you may be eager to point a finger at others -- maybe even at decisions that your clients made themselves. However, unless there's a good reason to do so, this is rarely a useful exercise.

Placing blame makes you sound whiny and defensive and may even raise questions about why you're deflecting from your role and responsibility.

Validate feelings and responses.

Your clients may be mad, sad, disappointed, frustrated, or some combination of these. Acknowledge their feelings and validate them when possible. Allow them the time and space to respond emotionally, even if it makes you uncomfortable. This is an important part of the process and will help them recover in the long term.

Don't personalize the client's response.

Your clients may be angry but they are rarely going to be angry with you. They may be angry at circumstances, market conditions, or the other party to the transaction. Don't confuse their natural response with a personal attack.

Stay centered, calm, and professional in your response. If they become too over-the-top in their emotional reaction, suggest that you talk again the next day and leave before things get too heated.

Allow time for processing before moving forward.

Unless there is a compelling reason, don't force your client to move forward immediately. Give them time to grieve, to discuss, to process. Let them sleep on things and respond the next day.

If they need to take a break from the home search, honor that wish. Don't try to make anyone operate on your timetable. Answer questions and provide value until they are ready to begin again.

Anyone can be a friend in good times. It's the way you respond when the going gets tough that shows your true character. By communicating with honesty, empathy, tact, and sensitivity during setbacks, you'll build a sterling reputation with your clients that will last long after their transaction has been successfully concluded.


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