How to answer "Tell me about a time when you had to communicate a difficult message to a team or stakeholder." (with sample answers)

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This post is part of our series on behavioral interview questions.

Why Employers Ask This Question

Employers ask this question to assess your communication skills and how you handle difficult situations. They want to know if you can effectively communicate a displeasing message to a team or stakeholder without causing any negative impact or jeopardizing a project. This question also helps interviewers to understand how you manage tough conversations, handle conflicts, and negotiate under pressure. A well-crafted response to this question shows interviewers that you can communicate difficult messages with tact and are a valuable asset to their team.

Don't try to avoid this question or provide an example where the message wasn't that difficult. Make sure to highlight your communication skills and demonstrate how you remain professional and solution-oriented in tough situations.

How to Answer the Question

When answering this question, provide an example that accurately illustrates how you communicated a difficult message to a team or stakeholder. Follow these steps to provide a detailed and well-structured response:

  1. Provide context - Explain the situation, project, and team/stakeholder involved.
  2. Describe the message - Clearly state the message you had to communicate and why it was difficult.
  3. Explain your approach - Discuss your thought process and how you prepared for the conversation. Were there any challenges you had to overcome? Did you seek advice or support from anyone?
  4. Recount the conversation - Explain how the conversation went. How did the team/stakeholder react to the message? What questions did they ask, and how did you answer them?
  5. Outcome - Describe the outcome of the conversation. Was the situation resolved? If not how did you work on the problem with the team/stakeholder?
  6. Lessons learned - Provide insight into what you gained from this experience. What could you have done differently, if anything?

Remember to explain your rationale thoroughly and include any specific achievements or impacts that came from your response to the difficult message.

Sample answers

Bad answer 1:

Well, I haven't really had to communicate a difficult message to a team or stakeholder, so I can't really answer the question.

This answer is bad because it shows a lack of experience or the ability to handle tough situations, which could be a red flag for an interviewee. It's always better to be honest about your experience than to pretend you have none.

Good answer 1:

In my last job, our team had to deliver some bad news to a client regarding delays in their project timeline. I scheduled a meeting with the client and laid out the reasons for the delay clearly, provided them with an updated timeline, and explained how we planned to keep them informed of progress. Although the client was understandably disappointed, they appreciated the open communication and clear plan moving forward.

This answer is good because it outlines a specific example of a difficult communication challenge and how the interviewee handled it effectively. It also shows their ability to empathize with the client and maintain a positive relationship, even in a difficult situation.

Bad answer 2:

Whenever I have to communicate difficult messages, I usually just send an email. It's easier than face-to-face communication and allows me to avoid any confrontations or pushback.

This answer is bad because it shows a lack of ability or willingness to have difficult conversations in person, which is a valuable skill in any workplace and could be a red flag for the interviewer.

Good answer 2:

Once, I had to inform my team that we weren't going to receive the budget required to complete a project. This was unsettling because we'd made a lot of progress already, and the news means we'd have to abandon a significant portion of the work done. To deliver this news, I set up a meeting, where I briefed them about the decision and presented them with alternative options. This way, we could minimize any impact on the project and redistribute the work to other members, making the most of the work we had done thus far.

This answer is good because it acknowledges the difficulty of the situation, without compromising on the ability to move forward. It also showcases the ability to think critically and pivot, which is a valuable skill to have during tough times.

Bad answer 3:

I've never had to deliver bad news before, let alone to a group or stakeholder. I usually pass that role to someone more experienced or senior than I am.

This answer is bad because it shows a lack of willingness to take responsibility for tough decisions and could be a red flag for interviewers seeking someone who can take charge when called upon.

Good answer 3:

In my previous role, our division had to cut down on some staff because we were experiencing financial constraints. As a team lead, I was tasked with communicating the news to the affected parties. I took my time to put together a structured plan to deliver the message and spoke to each person about the decision and the way forward for them. I ensured they understood the rationale behind the decision, listened to their thoughts and feelings, and provided support and advice on strategies moving forward.

This answer is good because it shows the interviewee has the ability to communicate with sensitivity and support while still delivering bad news. It also demonstrates leadership and empathy for the affected parties.

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