How do you deliver an unpopular decision?

In this article, my main focus is on how we can deliver tough, often unpleasant messages, without creating anger or defensiveness in the recipient. Nothing can be guaranteed, of course, but at least reducing the negative impact whilst diluting the message is surely a good thing, isn’t it?

Some of the points discussed in this article are from the latest book I read, “TRUTH AT WORK” by Mark Murphy and others are from my own work experience.

I hope this article will give you a better understanding of how to present messages to a recipient who may be similarly confused, defensive or shocked at what is being relayed. Of course, knowing how to handle the situation is a must when leaving the message undelivered is not an option.

The following tips will help you strengthen both your communication and presentation skills. The advice is equally relevant in one’s personal life too: it doesn’t have to be restricted to the workplace.

Here are the key steps to deliver tough and often unpleasant messages:

Step 01 : Understand the truth killers (why we resist the truth)

Step 02 : Focus on the facts

Step 03 : Take their perspective

Step 04 : Set your Goals

Step 05 : Start a Conversation, Not a Confrontation

Step 06 : Create a Word Picture

Step 07 : Listen with structure

 Step 01: Understand the truth killers (why we resist the truth)

First, we need to identify why our recipient would be unwilling to accept the truth. It happens mainly due to the following conditions:

  1. Confident Unawareness – A condition in which people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence
  2. Perceptual Resistance – It is not easy to communicate the truth if the recipient experiences a totally different truth.
  3. Physiological resistance – It is a response to the discomfort felt from simultaneously holding two opposing beliefs
  4. Financial Resistance – Incentives and Financial benefits are our fourth truth killer

Step 02 : Focus on the facts

Before starting a conversation, we need to understand what the truth really is.

Facts should be clear and are better off without words like always, never, forever, impossible, and constantly.

Facts are candid.

Timely facts lead to more productive and less emotional conversation.

To understand the facts, we need to first understand the FIRE Model. The FIRE Model is a four-step process that we humans use to evaluate our surrounding world.

First, we notice some Facts.
Second, we make Interpretations about those facts.
Third, based on our Interpretations, we experience emotional Reactions.
Fourth, once we experience those emotions we have some desired Ends.

Step 03 : Take their Perspective

After we identify the facts, we need to identify our recipient’s mind and see the situation from his or her perception.

When our colleague sees that we are trying to see the world from his or her viewpoint, it helps make that person feel heard and understood. It signals that we are not aiming to attack or insult. In response, our colleague’s defensiveness drops and he or she becomes more open-minded to what we have to say.

If the colleague is a unique individual, it is a lot easier to take his or her perspective than when you see the person as an anonymous member in the group.

Step 04 : Set your Goals

Once we identify the Facts and colleague’s perspective, we need to identify what we can realistically achieve in our message. When setting an effective goal for our discussion, be sure we aren’t setting one of these three bad goals.

Bad Goal #1 : I want an Apology
Bad Goal #2 : I want you to admit you were wrong
Bad Goals #3 : I want You to Feel Bad for What You Did

Instead, we can use the following strategy to set the goal:

THE SIX Months Later Technique

This strategy helps take us outside the emotional distraction enabling us to view our goal objectively.

We can start by considering the interaction between our self and the recipient 6 months from now. While envisioning this future interaction, answer these 4 questions.

  1. In 6 months, what do I want our relationship to be like?
  2. In 6 months, what changes do I want to have occurred?
  3. In 6 months, what do I want to be doing?
  4. In 6 months, what do I want my colleague to be doing?

After we identify the goal, it will take only a small time to pass the message. However, sometimes it will take a longer duration than expected.

  1. Simple Goal and little resistance (Requires a single, brief discussion)
  2. Complex Goal and little resistance (Requires a single but longer discussion)
  3. Simple Goal and deep resistance (Requires a longer and more intense discussion)
  4. Complex goal and deep resistance (Requires a multistage discussions)

Step 5 : Start a Conversation , Not a Confrontation

We can use the IDEAS script strategy for this. This simple process will allow you and your recipient to establish a dialogue (not an attack). It signals that we “come in peace” to learn and share, not to fight and yell. Following this script, we communicate that we are going to discuss the issues, not shout about them.

The five steps of the IDEAS Script

I : Invite them to partner “Would you be willing to have a conversation with me about ABC?”
D: Disarm yourself. “I’d like to review the situation to make sure I’m on the same page as you.”
E: Eliminate blame. “And if we have different perspectives, we can discuss those and develop a plan for moving forward.”
A: Affirm their control. “Does that sound okay to you?”
S: Set a time limit. “Do you want to talk now, or would you prefer to wait until after lunch?”

Step 6 : Create a Word Picture

In the world of tough conversations, it’s good idea to create examples, non-examples, and super-examples. People understand the abstract concepts faster and better with examples that teach how to do something well, how not to do something, and how to do that something incredibly well.

Step 07 : Listen with Structure

One of the critical skills we need to improve is listening. Without listening, we are unable to successfully pass the message. Listening will allow us to identify our colleague’s true feelings.

Listening effectively requires a process that positively impacts the person speaking, gets us the appropriate information, and fully engages our brain. The process we are going to employ, structured listening, involves three parts:

  1. Eliciting: Eliciting is where we communicate to our colleague that we want to hear his or her thoughts and encourage the person to share those thoughts
  2. Listening: Listening involves keeping our lips sealed, ears open, and brain active.
  3. Confirming: Confirming is when we corroborate that we understood our colleague correctly

Overall, delivering a tough and often unpleasant message is a conversational process through which we can speak hard truths and get our colleagues to accept and embrace those messages.

More technically, a Truth talk is a fact-based dialogic process that reduces the listener’s psychological barriers to hearing, accepting and acting upon hard truths.

Author : Buddhika Abeygooneratne
Co-Author : Sucheru Dissanayake


  1. Very nice article Buddhika.

    This is one of the less touched and difficult topics to discuss and put into practice.

    I agree with you that it’s difficult to pass such a message to a person and that all we can do is to create an environment where he/she feels more comfortable to discuss the subject.

    Waiting for the next article!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very nice article Buddhika.

    This is one of the less touched and difficult topics to discuss and put into practice.

    I agree with you that it’s difficult to pass such a message to a person and that all we can do is to create an environment where he/she feels more comfortable to discuss the subject.

    Waiting for the next article!



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