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Delivering bad news, especially at work, it tricky. Whether it’s giving a negative review, or worse, letting someone go from their job, it’s a fraught and painful experience for both parties. Compassionate directness, a core value at Thrive Global, means communicating hard truths with empathy and understanding — and it helps us delicately maneuver challenging conversations.

Being compassionate and direct isn’t just about what you say, though. “Nonverbal communication is just as much a part of the communication process,” says Mark G. Frank, Ph.D., the chair of the department of communication at the University of Buffalo in New York. Frank, who’s served as an expert for the FBI and CIA, offers four tips on how to communicate tough stuff honestly and gently with your body language.

Relax your stance

Avoid a stick-straight posture, Frank says. Even if your voice is full of compassion, people will pick up on the harsh stance of your body, and it will make the sting of your delivery more painful. Frank suggests tilting your head to the side because it connotes vulnerability or curiosity about the other person. He also recommends assuming a more open and relaxed position when you’re sitting: “Spread your legs out a little bit more and poke your elbows out a little,” he says. It suggests your being on an equal level.

Maintain a soft smile

“The smile is the universal softener,” Frank says. Obviously, you don’t want to beam your brightest when you’re offering critical feedback, but a generic smile and a subtly parted lip says your approachable. “It draws people to you. It doesn’t push them away,” he says.

Watch your eye movements

Don’t stare, which signals an attempt to dominate, or constantly avert your gaze, which suggests you’re disengaged and don’t care. “Follow a normal pattern of eye contact,” Frank says, “where you talk a little and look away a little bit, then you look at them again.”

Try mirroring

Subtly and imperceptibly reflecting your conversation partner’s mannerisms — small gestures they frequently do like nodding or smiling — will evoke familiarity and make you seem disarming. “If they realize you’re doing it, though, it’ll backfire,” he says, so subtlety is key.

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  • Stephanie Fairyington

    Contributing Writer at Thrive

    Stephanie Fairyington is a contributing writer at Thrive. A New York-based journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic (online), The New Republic (online), The Boston Globe, and several other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her spouse Sabrina and daughter Marty.