Dear Negotiation Coach: Breaking Bad News

By on / Negotiation Training

Q: I am a real-estate agent working in a relatively active market. Unfortunately, market conditions mean I often am delivering bad news to buyers: houses go off the market before I can arrange a walk-through; my clients’ offers often are countered very aggressively or rejected outright; and sellers may not be willing to agree to my clients’ terms. I have noticed that delivering bad news to my clients can sour our relationship; they seem to like me less. It is important that I have a pleasant and trusting working relationship with my clients. What can I do to prevent clients from “shooting the messenger”?

A: The problem you describe is not limited to the field of real estate. In all types of negotiations, agents and others are put in the uncomfortable position of having to break bad news to a client. And just as you describe, such messengers are often the targets of unwarrantedly harsh judgments, my research with Harvard doctoral students Hayley Blunden and Heidi Liu has shown. I say “unwarrantedly” because it’s not your fault that the market is so hot, and you had no hand in making the unfortunate events happen. But despite that reality, people direct their displeasure with bad news toward the messenger herself, we have found; in fact, sometimes people mistakenly believe that the messenger had a hand in the unfortunate event’s occurrence.

In one of our experiments, participants were eligible to win $2 in a simple game of chance. The researcher drew a number out of a hat, and participants knew immediately whether they won the $2 or not. Next, participants rated how much they liked (or, more aptly, disliked) the researcher. Those who received the bad news that they had not won the $2 disliked the researcher much more than did those who had won. In fact, the “losers” even thought the researcher had been hoping to draw a losing number. Interestingly, it was completely transparent that the bearer of the bad news did not intentionally draw a losing number: it was clearly a random draw. Nonetheless, participants took out their dissatisfaction on the messenger, deeming him unlikable and as having malevolent motives.

We found the same result in a similar study in which we asked participants to imagine receiving either good or bad test results from a doctor. Participants who imagined receiving bad news deemed the doctor to be significantly less likable relative to those who got good news. And even though the hypothetical doctor had no control over the test result, participants who imagined receiving bad news believed the doctor had been hoping for the result to be negative.

The good news is that there are strategies you can use to reduce or eliminate your clients’ adverse reactions to bad news—strategies that apply beyond the real-estate arena. First, when you begin a relationship with new clients, convey explicitly that you are on their side, and prepare them for the possibility of bad news down the line. In your case, this would mean being upfront about the challenging state of the market and explaining that they may need to be patient in their quest for a new home.

Second, if and when bad news arrives, you can try to frame it in a positive light. For example, if a seller has rejected your client’s terms, make it clear that negotiation is still possible. Or if a house has been taken off the market, show clients a similar house that is still available. The better the news you can deliver, the less angry your client will be with you.

Third, make it clear to your client that this was not the outcome you were hoping for. As we saw in our research, people often shoot the messenger because they assume the messenger wants to deliver bad news. So, couch bad news with phrases such as, “I am so disappointed to let you know that . . . ” Although that may not be a perfect solution—your clients may still be colder than you are accustomed to—it should make them feel more warmly toward you than if you had delivered the bad news point-blank.

Leslie John

Associate Professor

Harvard Business School


By e-mail: (Please write “Q and A” in the subject line.)

By mail: Negotiation Briefings, Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School, 1563 Massachusetts Avenue, 513 Pound Hall, Cambridge, MA 02138-2903

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