How to Give Bad News

You’re a nice person. You feel the pain of others, and hate to be the cause of it. So you know that giving bad news is just about the worst interpersonal experience there is. I’m not talking about telling someone their favourite show was cancelled or you broke one of their mugs. I’m talking big stuff — stuff central to their lives. Breaking up with someone. Firing them. Traumatic events that shake a person’s very sense of self-worth.

We avoid it like the plague if we can. We delay and defer, often making things far worse. When finally we get to it, we misspeak and misrepresent ourselves, so consumed are we by the discomfort of saying what must be said. It’s irrational, but then, so are we.

We can’t eliminate our human foibles, and frankly, I wouldn’t want to. What we can do is employ a few simple tricks to counterbalance them. Our goal should be to minimise both parties’ pain to the greatest extent possible. To that end, what follows is my humble take on how to give bad news.

Tip 1: Make your process sound

First, realise an important truth: if people can’t attack a decision, they attack the process. Firing or breaking up with someone leaves them powerless to change the outcome, yet they need to vent the hurt and anger they feel. If possible, they will challenge the decision itself. Failing that, they’ll go after the process used to reach it. Accusations are many and varied: lack of forewarning, transparency, proper consideration, among others.

Your process must therefore be robust enough to withstand scrutiny. Pre-empt charges of misconduct. Have ready responses to any potential claims against you. Your goal is that after all the emotion has drained away, the other person realises on reflection that you did the absolute best you could have done in that situation. They might even respect you for it.

Tip 2: Be sure of your decision

While this seems blatantly obvious, the reason is less so: be sure so that when confronted head-on with actual negative results of your actions, you don’t lose confidence in the decision.

Bad news is always a lesser-of-two-evils situation. Consider two options: firing a poor employee, or not. Both are bad. Either someone loses their job, or the company absorbs whatever negativity prompted his dismissal in the first place. It’s a lose-lose scenario. Your job is to choose the least bad option. In this case, firing him.

You’ve weighed the considerations, assessed the pros and cons, and decided this is the right call. But the other guy hasn’t. To him, it’s just about him. He might argue his case by pointing out the downside of your decision. And the downside is real! But it won’t shake your confidence because you’ve already considered all his arguments. You’ve run the proverbial numbers and you know it’s the right move. This is crucial.

Tip 3: Do it in person

I know. Obvious also, right? But the staggering human capacity for rationalising bad ideas compels me to include this.

Maybe you’ve convinced yourself a phonecall will spare the other person humiliation and suffering. Suppress this thought. If anything, it will probably increase their suffering. In trying to make it easier on yourself (your true motivation here — whether you admit it or not), you’re instead making it worse for both parties.

There are two key reasons to give bad news in person. The first is that it facilitates all the other stages of the process. You want all the feedback cues you can get, whether visual, verbal, or behavioural. There is just no substitute for looking someone in the face.

The second reason is even more important. It allows you to control the reaction. The very first thing an angry person does is seek a sympathetic ear. A friend, family member: anyone who will automatically take their side. Virulently, furiously, they share their pain and demonise the terrible person who did this to them. Naturally, friends and family support them without question, sometimes getting even more outraged than their loved one. Now you have an echo chamber reinforcing the anger. Eventually it will erupt in either your face or their own.

On the other hand, by sitting down with someone and taking the time to explain your decision and respond to their concerns, you can diffuse the anger before it grows. They’ll still tell friends and family, but the narrative will be one of disappointment, not vitriol.

Tip 4: Remember that it’s about them, not you

When a person gets bad news, the natural response is to blame the messenger. Everything was fine until you rudely disturbed their peaceful life with painful information. Surprise is followed swiftly by anger, usually directed straight at you.

Recognise that this is true whether or not the bad news is your ‘fault’. Imagine telling a friend that the pet dog they left in your care while travelling has died of natural causes. The initial resentment they’d feel is tempered very little by the fact that you did nothing wrong. Of course, they’d stay angry at you much longer if it actually was your fault, but that’s not the point. The point is that in this moment, your actions do not impact how they feel.

Equally crucially, realise that no matter how bad you feel, the other person feels much worse. As well as losing something of great importance, they are also humiliated. It’s an incredibly intense experience. They might be furiously angry, inconsolably depressed, or anything in between.

The bottom line here is that empathy is paramount: go out of your way to understand how they feel at each moment, and keep this front and centre in your mind.

Tip 5: Get to the point fast

Don’t waffle. Don’t mince words. Don’t try to soften them up with complements and flattery beforehand. Sit down, and tell them. Immediately.

You might be tempted to start with your reasoning. But reasons are explanations. If you haven’t given the news yet, there is nothing to explain. Leading them down the garden path merely builds a sense of foreboding. Like tearing off a band-aid, it’s best to just get it over with.

Only then should you explain. It’s easy to get side-tracked, so be methodical. List reasons one by one. Spell out the logic behind them. Detail the process that led to your conclusion. Critically, don’t gloss over important but embarrassing details; say it all. When there’s no more to be said, it’s time to listen.

Tip 6: Listen to understand

We intuitively know that everyone wants to be heard. But don’t simply listen to respond: listen to understand. Internalise each of their ideas and measure it against your prior beliefs. A good lesson for most of life, it applies doubly here.

First, to appease. Unless the other person believes you’ve understood them, they won’t get closure. Instead they’ll dwell on the situation, believing things might have been different if only you’d properly heard them. Crucially, they must realise that you fully understand their position, but that it does not change the decision.

Second, listening to understand is for yourself. Maybe they raise good points. Maybe there are circumstances you were unaware of. Your resolve may be tested, but if you prepared well you shouldn’t be surprised. If you are, exercise your judgement and determine whether these new factors affect the decision.

Finally, respond. Address their concerns seriously. Discuss, pacify, diffuse. Importantly, allow enough time. Once you sit down, don’t get up until you’re satisfied with how the matter is being left. If you’re busy, make time. Spending a little of it now will prevent wasting a lot when the mishandled issue comes back to bite you.

And that’s it. Stand up, say goodbye, and walk away. They still feel bad; you already feel a lot better.

Like it or not, these are conversations we must all have at times. All you can do is your best. But hopefully now, your best might be a tiny bit better.

Originally published at on April 5, 2017.