How To Break Bad News To Someone: Ultimate 11-Step Guide

Today you’re going to learn how to break bad news to someone.

It is never easy to deliver a terrible message to someone. On the other hand, delivering it at the wrong time or in the wrong way can have disastrous consequences. Understanding the best ways to convey terrible news is crucial.

The main challenge (besides the terrible message itself) is that it is just as difficult for the person delivering the bad news as it is for the one receiving it. Learn some techniques for delivering bad news that can make the situation easier for both parties.

How To Break Bad News To Someone:

1. Think about your own reaction.

Take care of yourself before you prepare to tell someone else. You may also be affected by the news. Alternatively, even if it doesn’t affect you directly, it may cause you considerable distress. Before you try to explain things to someone else, you need to give yourself time to recover your emotions.

Take a shower, drink a cup of coffee, meditate, or take a few deep breaths for a few minutes, or simply sit in a quiet, dark place for a few seconds to give yourself time to collect your thoughts. Once you get over the initial shock, telling the other person will be less daunting, but it’s important to acknowledge that it can still be difficult.

2. Choose the story you want to tell.

Before you deliver unpleasant news, you need to know how much you are able and willing to reveal. Be polite and provide facts about the new event that may help the person gain more clarity.

Don’t be silly or get into small talk. This is more stressful for the person who receives the terrible news than avoiding the topic. To explain events, tell the story of what happened (narrative). Look the person(s) in the eyes and gently explain what happened.

3. Make certain that you are prepared to say what you are going to say.

This can help you formulate the phrases you want to use and be prepared to stay adaptable to the other person’s signals. Who you are, your relationship with the person you are delivering the message to, and the context of the message all affect the words you use and how you deliver them.

If there has been an accident and someone has been hurt, try to say it clearly but softly.

Give the person some time to emotionally prepare for what you are going to say to them, and then tell them what happened.

If you lost your job, say something like: “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the company was taken over by a larger chain.” Then add, “Unfortunately, I was laid off.”

4. Determine if you are the best person to deliver the news.

If you are a random person who just heard about some breaking terrible news early on, you may not want to be the one to deliver it. However, if you were an eyewitness to the event, you are most likely the best person to inform the rest of the family.

For example, it is inappropriate to spread personal or sensitive information on social media just because you know something. Give family and close friends time to call or visit with people before rushing out and getting involved if the news is about a terrible situation.

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5. Make sure the environment is both comfortable and private.

The worst thing you can do is spout off in a public place where the recipient has nowhere to even sit down to deal with the consequences of what they heard. Choose a place where you can sit down or rest. Also, try to transport the person to a place where others will not disturb them. Other things you can do to help the environment are:

Turn off all electrical appliances such as the TV, radio, music player, etc.

If you want more privacy, close the blinds or curtains, but don’t shut out too much light if it’s daytime.

To create a private space for the two of you, close a door or move a screen or other object away.

If you think it would be beneficial, ask a family member or friend to join you.

6. If at all possible, pick the right time.

Waiting is not always possible because the message must be presented right away before rumors spread. If at all possible, wait until the other person is available and open before you deliver the unpleasant news.

In other words, delivering terrible news when someone walks in the door after a long day at work or school, or after a particularly harsh argument with a spouse, is unlikely to be the most pleasant experience. While there is no such thing as a “good” time to deliver bad news, there is some logic in waiting until someone is in the middle of nothing.

Take a deep breath and interrupt what is happening with something like, “I need to talk to you, Jane, and I’m afraid this can’t wait.”

Feelings of urgency can be conveyed over the phone, but it’s also a good idea to ask if you can meet soon to deliver the news in person. If this is not possible, or if the person really needs to know right now, you should encourage the recipient to sit down because you have something unpleasant to tell them. If you are concerned about how the recipient will handle it if he or she is alone, instruct them to have someone nearby to help them.

7. Determine in advance how the person who is to receive the message feels.

It is also important to find out what the person already knows to prevent them from repeating mistakes or exacerbating an already difficult situation. This step is crucial because it will help you tailor the words and methods you use to deliver the bad news.

Pay attention to whether the other person has a stealthy suspicion that something unpleasant is happening or feels emotions of fear (1), anxiety, or concern.

Take a look at the awful news. Is it really that bad? Are you trying to inform someone that their pet has passed away or that you have lost your job? Has a member of your family or a close friend passed away? If the bad news is about you (such as losing your job), the consequences will be different than if the issue is about you (such as the death of a favorite pet).

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8. Inform the person that you intend to deliver the bad news.

Such an announcement can help a person prepare for terrible news that will come unexpectedly. Although you want to move on without wasting time, you should at least prepare the person for the possibility of bad news.

You can say something like: “I just got a call from the hospital: there was an accident and…”, “I talked to your doctor and…”, “This can’t be easily expressed, but…”, “You must be hearing very bad news…”, etc.

9. If appropriate, comfort the person.

Respond to the other person’s emotions as they arise by recognizing and relating to them when recounting events. The most critical aspect of communicating a message is responding skillfully to the other person’s emotions (2).

Link the identification of feelings to the reason and let the recipient know that you understand. Pay attention to the other person’s reaction by using phrases such as “This is certainly a terrible shock” or “I can see that you are really unhappy and outraged by what has happened,” etc.

This shows that you understand their sadness or other reaction and have related it to the message you just delivered, without passing judgment, making assumptions, or trying to belittle their feelings.

10. Accept the possibility of silence as a response.

After receiving disturbing news, no one will ask questions or demand explanations. Some people may just sit in a state of shock. It may take some time for the news to take hold. Put your hand on the person’s shoulder and just sit with them, showing empathetic support.

To avoid making the situation worse, be mindful of social and cultural traditions when comforting the person.

11. Make a decision about what to do next.

It is sad to give bad news, but there must be a plan for what happens next. Action can help the person avoid shock by giving them the impression that they are involved in or doing something to resolve, control, cope with, or face the consequences of the unpleasant news.

Help the person decide how to deal with the news. How will a friend or relative cope with the death of a loved one? How will the owner of a cat pay tribute to the cat if it dies? How will someone find a new job if they lose their current one?

Perhaps you could volunteer to drive the other person to some place, such as the hospital, to get things, to a counseling appointment, to the police station, or any other place required.

Explain what will happen next, especially in terms of your personal involvement. For example, you might offer to help with driving so the other person can get personal errands done more quickly. Just letting the person know that you will be around and stop by to check on them can be beneficial in itself.

No matter what promises you make to the person who received the bad news, make sure you follow through on them.

Take your time with this person if you can, and acknowledge their need for privacy if necessary.

I want to thank you for taking the time to read my article about how to break bad news to someone. I sincerely hope its contents have been a good help to you.

Przemkas Mosky
Przemkas Mosky started Perfect 24 Hours in 2017. He is a Personal Productivity Specialist, blogger and entrepreneur. He also works as a coach assisting people to increase their motivation, social skills or leadership abilities. Read more here