Best Ways to Break Bad News

It is never nice to have to give somebody bad news. As humans, we are empathic beings and we understand how we would feel if we were to receive bad news. Unfortunately, we often struggle to find a way in which we would like to receive this news, which is probably because there is no way to deliver or receive bad news in a positive way. However, what needs to be done needs to be done, so finding ways to soften the blow as best as possible, whilst remaining truthful and honest, can be very important.

Step One

When you do have to break bad news to somebody, use your empathic powers to determine how you would respond if the same bad news was given to you. This will help you to expect a certain kind of reaction from the person you will be breaking the news to. Perhaps the bad news you will be sharing has also impacted you, in which case it is very important to make sure you have settled your own mind back down first.

Step Two

The second step is to practice what you will be saying. Simply blurting something out can make the bad news come as a really bad blow. You can practice what you are going to say in your head, write it down, or even speak to yourself in front of a mirror. This is a particularly good idea, as it will also allow you to gauge your facial expressions as you are delivering the news.

Step Three

When you are breaking bad news, ensure your surroundings are comfortable and offer a high degree of privacy. Never give somebody bad news on a busy street corner, for example. Firstly, the information you are giving them may be quite confidential in nature and should not be overheard by others, but secondly they may have a strong emotional response to the news, that should also not be witnessed by others.

Make sure, as well, that your mobile phone is switched off and that you will not be disturbed by other outside influences. For example, ensure that the door to the room you are taking them is closed and, if possible, that windows are covered.

Step Four

Timing is incredibly important when breaking bad news. If it is not necessary for bad news to be delivered immediately, then wait until a convenient time has been found. For example, if the bad news can wait until after someone has returned from their holiday, or after they are about to drive a car, to name but a few.

However, if it is imperative that the bad news is delivered as soon as possible, the right time is there and then. In this case, it is important NOT to wait until other things are finished. For example, if there has been an accident with someone’s child, do not wait until they have finished the meeting they are in, but interrupt discreetly.

Timing, in other words, is everything.

Step Five

If at all possible, try to determine how the person you are breaking the bad news to is feeling. As you will have interrupted whatever they were doing to break the bad news, in a private and comfortable place, they will probably suspect something is wrong. Try to judge their responses: are they appearing scare, anxious, angry, upset? These responses can also tell you a great deal about how much the already know. It is important, when breaking bad news, to not cover grounds that the person is already familiar with.

As an example, you may be the new oncologist to a cancer sufferer and you need to tell them their cancer has spread. The fact that you have requested their presence will mean they will have already guessed that something is wrong. It is important, in a situation like this one that you do not go over their illness and treatment up to that point. You may be their new oncologist, but they already know all of this information and listening once again to the horrors of their illness will not make receiving the bad news any easier.

Step Six

As stated earlier in this article, you need to be very honest when you are breaking bad news. Do not use metaphors or euphemisms to soften the blow and do not, immediately, try to make things better. Many people will deliver bad news or will talk to someone who has received bad news and will then say things that they think will make the other feel better, when in reality it has quite the opposite effect.

For example, when a woman has a miscarriage and tells her friends and family about this, the responses she is likely to get are “thank god it happened now and not later”, “it’s nature’s way” or “something must have been wrong in the first place”. These statements are clearly meant to show the woman that there is a positive in her loss, and that life could have been a lot worse, but these statements are more likely to make her feel like the life she was growing inside her was not worth very much.

Step Seven

The last, and possibly the most important step, to breaking bad news is to follow through. If you deliver bad news to someone, you hold some responsibility for their response to that bad news and for their immediate needs following this bad news.

If they respond by bursting out into tears, for example, make sure you are the one that offers them that box of tissues and a shoulder to cry on. Never force someone to get over their emotions quickly, allow them to feel what they need to feel for as long as is necessary. Try to do everything you can to make them feel more comfortable and assist in their needs. In the case of hospitalisation of a family member, for example, offer them a lift to the hospital.

Unfortunately, breaking bad news to someone is a fact of life. There are varying degrees of bad news, but generally, none of them are easy. Bad news can vary from something as simple as breaking someone’s favourite vase, to telling someone they have a terminal illness, from explaining that a holiday needs to be cancelled, to telling someone that they have lost their job. However, it is always important to remember that this bad news needs to be told to people in an empathic and honest manner, whereby the receiver is allowed to feel whatever they need to feel. Show compassion and kindness wherever possible and be understanding of their feelings. If you follow the steps described above, you will be breaking bad news in as nice a way as possible, without demeaning the fact that there is no nice way to bring bad news, only honest and respectful ways.



2 Comments

  1. Best article I've read on this subject.

  2. Thanks, this helped a lot!

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