How to deliver sensitive information when the stakes are high

From time to time, we get into conversations where what we say will determine whether we win big or lose, regrettably. As we continue to live, grow in our careers and do business, we are faced with situations where we cannot avoid having difficult conversations. This may be a conversation with a friend, a lover, a funder or vendor, a job interview or performance appraisal, an election campaign or a media interview on a delicate or controversial issue. Because the stakes are high, our emotions can run wild and get ahead of our thinking—making the difficult conversations even more difficult to handle.

Leaders with a high level of emotional intelligence know that their words have to be measured in certain circumstances because they can either make or destroy their personal or professional fortunes.

As we host leaders across Africa in Nairobi this week for the Dr. Abiola Salami International Leadership BootCamp, I thought of sharing these three things you can do to help you on this journey.

1. Utilize empirical data to gain stakeholder engagement.
In emotionally-charged situations, the popular decision may not be the right decision. Most stakeholders, like all humans, justify decisions founded on emotion with some logic. If it seems that your information or submission goes against the grain, you must then ensure that you stand on inerrant facts and consult critical stakeholders accordingly. This takes you out of the picture as a proponent of such an “unpopular” decision and saves you from any possible backlash. Data is objective, dispassionate and unsentimental—it doesn’t sway to politics, race, religion or other biases. Hence, when circumstances are tense, and you’re caught in dire straits, go for data.

Lagos State is reputed to be the commercial capital of Nigeria and the economic hub of West Africa. When the Covid-19 pandemic was first reported, it was a dilemma for the state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to balance between losing lives and livelihoods. As time progressed, following the data, consultation with stakeholders and the medical models that projected thousands of lives that would be lost if there wasn’t a drastic intervention, he declared a lockdown. It wasn’t a popular decision because it meant that many business models would be disrupted, but it was backed by science.

2. Use measured language.
While your submission must be data-driven, your tone has to be tempered, and your language should de-escalate tensions because how you say something might be more important than what you’re saying. When circumstances are already heated, there’s no need to further polarize the obvious.
Sometimes, people can agree on something they previously disagreed on when the same information is presented with empathy. Messaging is everything when delivering sensitive information when the stakes are high.

For example, if you make a mistake that has far-reaching consequences, it would be arrogant to try to justify your actions. If you choose to use sober language to convey how remorseful or contrite you are, you might still get to keep your head. Often, people know that mistakes are inevitable, but when you gaslight people, it can further enrage them.

Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, was faced with a litany of sexual assault charges. He faced growing calls to resign, but he kept insisting on his innocence until there were calls from even his own cabinet, state lawmakers and party stalwarts to resign or face impeachment—to which he chose the former. Cuomo is an example of what not to do. On the other hand, when his successor Kathy Hochul took the reins, she demonstrated her adeptness at navigating the scandalous circumstances.

In one of her first interviews, she was asked about the conduct of her predecessor. Instead of taking a swipe at him, she toned down her rhetoric: “Well, I’m not going to try to get into the head of the governor and understand, you know, his motivation . . . That’s not what my role is. My role is to have a smooth transition and to hit the ground running literally in a matter of days. So I’ve got a lot of weighty challenges. I’m reaching out to the experts and elected officials and we’re going to stay focused. I will have no distractions in my administration because we [are] focused on doing what’s best for the people of the state.”

3. Be honest.
It is OK to admit that you don’t have all the answers or that you dropped the ball. Instead of winging it, just come clean. When the storm subsides, people may chide you for your shortcomings, but they will give you full marks for honesty.
Being disingenuous only adds fuel to the fire because when it is found out that you misconstrued events, it could have a boomerang effect. Honesty doesn’t mean that you get away with misconduct or incompetence with a slap on the wrist. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Honesty is an admission that you are willing to take responsibility for both good and bad outcomes.

Tega Offiong Dominic-Ajeboh and Boma Akpore, ex-housemates from Season 6 of the popular Big Brother Nigeria franchise, faced quite a backlash for their actions and inactions in the house. They initially tried to downplay it, but the fans of the show didn’t have it. Akpore then found the courage to own up to his faults, citing how much it has taken a toll on the mental health of his team. Only then was the outrage against him pacified. Offiong Dominic-Ajeboh followed suit and made a public apology to her husband, her friends and family, the fans and others who were offended by her actions. Their honesty, not their grandstanding, helps them navigate such murky waters.

The frequency of delivering sensitive information may vary by profession, location or situation and the degree of sensitivity may also vary, but it is my hope that the three insights shared in this piece will help equip you to handle sensitive information appropriately.

About Dr. Abiola Salami
Dr. Abiola Salami is the Convener of Dr Abiola Salami International Leadership Bootcamp,The Peak Performer Recognition,The Peak Performing Woman of The Yearand Publisher/Editor-in-Chief ofThe Peak PerformerTM. He is the Principal Performance Strategist at CHAMP – a full scale professional services firm trusted by high performing business leaders for providing Executive Coaching, Workforce Development & Advisory Services to improve performance. You can reach him on and connect with him @abiolachamp on all social media platforms.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Support The Peak Performer Africa

Curating these articles costs a lot of money. It is our pleasure to bring you more. If you have derived some value from our work, kindly encourage our team with a voluntary donation. You can decide the frequency of your donation.