How to Break Bad News

Three Parts:Selecting Your WordsChoosing the Right ContextDelivering Bad News Effectively

Breaking bad news to someone is never a pleasant task. But, breaking it at the wrong time or in the wrong way can be even worse. It's important to know the best approaches to breaking bad news. The real difficulty (besides the content of the bad news) is that it is just as hard for the person breaking the bad news as it is for the person receiving it. Learn some methods to help you break bad news with the least amount of aggravation for both parties.

Part 1
Selecting Your Words

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    Work through your own reaction. Before preparing yourself to tell someone else, take care of yourself.[1] The news may impact you, too. Or, it may disturb you considerably even if it doesn't impact you directly. It is important for you to have given yourself a chance to recover your feelings before you try to explain things to someone else.
    • Perhaps have a cup of coffee, take a shower, meditate or do deep breathing for a few minutes, or simply sit in a quiet dark place for some moments to give yourself the chance to pull together. Once you've moved past the initial shock, it'll be less intimidating to tell the other person but it's important to acknowledge that it may still be hard.
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    Decide on the narrative. Before you break some bad news, it's important to have an idea of how much you're willing and able to share. Be gentle and share information about the new development that can help shed more light for the person.
    • Don't ramble or make small talk. This is easier on the person receiving bad news than beating around the bush. Provide the story of what has happened (the narrative) to explain the events. Look the person(s) straight in the eye and calmly tell them what has happened.[2]
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    Practice what you're going to say. This can help you to formulate the words you'd like to use, but be prepared to remain flexible and ready to adapt to the other person's cues. The words and your style of delivery are dependent on who you are, your relationship to the person you're breaking it to, and the context of the news.
    • If there has been an accident and someone has died, practice saying so directly, but gently: "I'm so sorry to tell you this; Michael was in a terrible car accident."
    • Aim to give the person a little time to emotionally prepare for what you might tell them, and after they take a breath to collect themselves, they'll say, "What happened?" or "How is he?" Then follow up directly with, "I'm so sorry, but he was killed."
    • If you lost your job, say something like: I'm really sorry to have to say this but the company has been taken over by a bigger network. Then you follow up with, And I have unfortunately been fired from my job.

Part 2
Choosing the Right Context

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    Determine if you're the right person to break the news.[3] If you're a casual acquaintance who has just happened to learn early about some breaking bad news, possibly you should not be the bearer of that news. But if you are the sister of a woman who has been rushed to hospital, then you are probably the right person to break the news to the rest of the family.
    • It's insensitive to blast personal or sensitive information all over social media, for example, just because you know something. If the news relates to a death or other serious circumstance, give the family and close friends time to call or visit people personally before you jump get involved.
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    Ensure that the physical setting is comfortable and private. The worst thing that you can do is to blurt something out in a public space with nowhere for the recipient to turn or even sit down to cope with the aftermath of hearing it. Choose an area that has somewhere to sit or rest.[4] Also, consider taking the person to a location that has a low likelihood of being intruded upon by other people. Other things to do to improve the environment include:
    • Turn off all electronic distractions such as the TV, radio, music, etc.
    • Pull the blind or curtains if this will improve privacy but don't shut out too much light if it's daytime.
    • Shut the door or pull across a screen or other item to create a private space for the two of you.
    • If you think it would be helpful, have a family member or friend also accompany you.
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    Choose the right time if possible.[5] Sometimes waiting isn't possible because the news has to be delivered immediately, before rumors start. However, if it is possible, delay the bad news until a time when the other person is available and receptive.
    • In other words, delivering bad news as a person is coming in the door from a day of work or school, or after you've just had a huge row with your partner is not likely to be the best of times. While there is not "good" time to tell bad news, there is a point to waiting until a person is not in the middle of arriving or similar.
    • If the news is of such import and urgency that it can't wait for a "better time," just take a deep breath and break in to whatever is going on with something like, "I need to speak with you, Jane, and I'm afraid it can't wait."
    • The sense of urgency can also be imparted over the phone, but it is helpful to ask if it's possible to meet up quickly so that you can share the news face-to-face. If this isn't possible, or if the person really needs to know now, you're best asking the recipient if they're sitting down as you need to tell them something unpleasant. If you're worried about how they might cope alone, also suggest that they have someone else in the vicinity for support.
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    Assess how the recipient of the news is feeling beforehand.[6]. It is also important to find out what the person already knows, in order to avoid repeating things or prolonging an already difficult situation. This step is important because it will help you to tailor the words and approach you'll use to initiate the telling of the bad news.
    • Things to look for include whether the other person already seems to have an inkling that something bad is up, the presence of fear, anxiety, or worry, and whether or not this news is going to come from "out of the blue" (like a death in a car accident) or is something inevitable although not yet faced (like failure of a cancer treatment).
    • Consider what the bad news is. How bad is it? Are you trying to tell someone that their cat died, or that you lost your job? Has a family member or close friend died? If the bad news relates to you (such as you losing your job) the effects will be different than if the problem relates to them (such as their cat dying).

Part 3
Delivering Bad News Effectively

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    Signal the bad news before you dive in. A transitional statement can help the person get ready for unexpected bad news. Although you want to get to the point right away instead of beating around the bush, you do want to at least prepare the person for the prospect of upsetting news.
    • You can use phrases such as: "I have some sad news to tell you", "I've just received a call from the hospital: there has been an accident and..."; or "I've been talking to your specialist and...", "There is no easy way to say this but..." or There's some really bad news you need to know... etc.[7]
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    Offer comfort to the person, if appropriate. As you narrate the events, react to the emotions of the other person as they arise by acknowledging and addressing them.[8] The most important part of breaking news is how well you respond to the other person's emotions.
    • Make the connection between the identification of the emotions and the cause, and make it clear to the recipient that you get the connection. Do this by acknowledging their response, such as "This is a clearly a terrible shock" or "I can see that you're really upset and angry about what has happened", and so forth.
    • Doing this lets the person know you get their pain or other reaction and that you've tied it to the news you've just relayed, without passing any judgment, making any assumptions, or trying to minimize their emotions.
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    Accept silence as a possible response. Everyone won't ask questions or demand answers after hearing upsetting news. Some people may just sit there in shock. It may take time to let the news sink in. If he or she does that, place your arm around the person’s shoulders and simply sit with him or her in a display of sympathetic solidarity.
    • When comforting the person, keep in mind social and cultural conventions to avoid making the situation worse.
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    Decide what to do next. It's all very well delivering bad news but there must be a strategy for after delivery of it. Action can help prevent a person from going into a state of shock, and can give them a sense of being involved or doing something to resolve, manage, deal with, or face the results of the bad news. Help to decide how to handle the news. If a person has died, how will the friend or relative cope? If a cat died, how will the owner honor it? If someone lost their job, how will they find a new one?
    • Perhaps you can offer to take the recipient somewhere, such as visiting a hospital, gathering belongings, seeing a counselor, going to the police, or whatever is needed.
    • Make it plain what is likely to happen next, especially with relation to your own involvement. If you're a doctor delivering bad news about treatment, for example, you might outline the next steps for the patient continuing to visit you. Simply letting the person know when you'll be around or back again to check on them can be a help in and of itself.
    • Whatever promises you make to assist the person who has received bad news, be sure to follow through on what you've said you'll do.[9]
    • Give the person your time where possible, and be accepting of their need to grieve where relevant.

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