One of the toughest communication situations is when you have to share bad news. If you’re a “feeler” type of person your empathy for the other person – and your own emotions about the news – might make it a task you dread. If you’re more of a “thinker” type of person you might be uncomfortable with the unpredictability of the other person’s potential reaction. Either way, here are 9 tips for sharing the worst news in the best way:

  1. Know what your intention is in sharing the bad news. Are you looking for the person to change some behavior? Are you trying to prepare the person for something that is out of their control, but that you know is going to happen? Is your goal merely to demonstrate that you have an inside track on information? (That’s not a valid reason to share bad news – that’s just gossip.)
  2. Make sure the news you intend to convey is accurate. Even if you’re a physician and you believe that this person’s illness is terminal you might not be aware of all of the cutting edge treatments, etc. that would change the prognosis. Don’t preview an outcome that you’re not sure will happen and then treat it as fact when you talk to them.
  3. Make sure you’re the appropriate person to convey the news. If you know the information second-hand, its accuracy is already suspect, because you would have heard it interpreted by another person, then unconsciously filtered it yourself. This bad news might be none of your business. In addition, if the information is of a technical nature you might not be viewed as a credible source by the receiver, and thus you’ll dilute the effectiveness of the communication.
  4. Consider whether the person you’re talking to can do anything about what you’re telling them. This is an everyday example – if you’re at lunch and your companion has a stain on his tie it serves no purpose to point it out. He’s not going to change his tie at lunch – your message will only make him feel self-conscious. An exception to this would be if you know he has a big presentation after lunch and would want to replace his tie beforehand.
  5. Really bad news should be told in person. Good communication is a two-way process – you need to see and be able to respond to verbal and nonverbal feedback about their reaction to the information. You might not even be able to tell whether the other person heard you correctly if you’re not right there providing an opportunity for dialogue.
  6. Be brief. In general, more words clutter your message. There are situations where you need to set some context before you get right into it, but give the person credit for being able to handle whatever you have to say to them. To do less is to treat them as though you’re their parent, and when you do that you increase the likelihood that they’ll react like a child.
  7. Understand that they might get angry at you even if you’re a neutral party. The receiver of the message will have feelings about it, and they need their space in which to react. Remember that no matter how they might lash out at you it probably isn’t really about you. You’re simply the one who’s there, and if you can keep an appropriate level of detachment from the emotional content you are in a better position to be helpful to them. Empathy (seeing their perspective) is not the same as sympathy (agreeing with it.)
  8. If there are potential solutions get right to them. Few people want to wallow in a bad state – help them to feel control or influence over their situation by talking through the actions or alternatives they can take to improve the outcome. This doesn’t mean that you dance right past the bad news. When, for instance, it’s a performance issue that’s creating the potential for the person to be fired they might need to have some time to absorb the potential consequences of the problem before they’re ready to commit to new actions.
  9. Be wise about location and timing. Bad news is best told in private so the person can react without losing face. (Don’t break up with somebody in a restaurant!) And unless it’s a critical emergency upon which they have to act immediately, don’t tell them the bad news right before they are getting ready to do something important. The news will just distract them from doing their best, or from enjoying a moment that they deserve to enjoy.
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