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How to Deliver Bad News


Disciplines > Communication > How to Deliver Bad News

Check your purpose | Adopt a caring attitude | Elicit their perception | Expand their understanding | Reframe for acceptance | Handle responses | Discussion | See also


Delivering bad news to other people in a way that they can accept it is one of the most difficult tasks and one which many people understandably avoid.

Check your purpose

When you feel the need to tell a person something they may find uncomfortable, first ask yourself why you want to impart this bad news. And if the truth is that it is really to make you feel better, then you should reconsider. Making others feel bad so you can feel good is cruel, mean and the action of a bully. Of course we do not think of ourselves in this way yet sometimes our actions imply uncomfortable truths.

A valid purpose (and perhaps the only good purpose) is to help the other person. Even if they have done something wrong or bad then helping them learn and improve is far better than simply seeking to punish them by making them feel bad.

Another situation where tact is needed is when there is a formal or social requirement to give the other person some information that will cause them discomfort. Again, it is better to take the purpose of breaking the bad news as gently as possible than just dumping the facts on them.

Adopt a caring attitude

Often when we speak with others we are not particularly thinking about their welfare or their emotional state. More common is that we are thinking about our purpose and what we are saying. While it seems reasonable for us to focus on our goals, if the other person thinks we do not care about them, then it is not surprising that they will care little for us or what we say.

If you start with an attitude of care and concern for the well-being of the other person they will trust you more, lowering their guard and openly listening to what you have to say.

It is important also to sustain this attitude, no matter what they have said or done. If you flip into harsh criticism then they will flip into defensive coping as they conclude you do no care after all and were just going through the motions in order to manipulate them.

Elicit their perception

It is easy to assume they know all about the situation in question, how important it is and how wrong or bad they really are. This is hardly ever true, which is why direct criticism is such a surprise. Even if the surprise shocks them into admission and apology, they may still be mystified and upset by the attack and may later develop a grudge against what they conclude is unfair treatment.

The first step is to find out what they know of the situation. Talk first of facts, taking people out of the situation as much as possible. Then include who said and did what as appropriate, still avoiding feelings.

Now seek their viewpoint, asking why they think things happened as they did. If they have not tried already, it is likely they will blame other people rather than themselves. They may see others as deserving problems and themselves as victims or righteous in their actions. They may also blame authorities or a generic 'situation' or 'world'.

Expand their understanding

Now help them understand more by first filling in missing facts, while still avoiding as far as possible what people think and feel. You may also need to note that your facts differ from theirs. If necessary, you may need to discuss sources of information to determine truth or uncertainty.

Next talk as appropriate about what other people thought and felt, including what the person thinks about this. Again, your sources of information about what went on in the minds of other people may bring important credibility.

Then discuss causes, perhaps leading to this with statements like 'I wonder why'. Causes are good for explaining things that seem unreasonable, giving fair explanation and showing long chains of events. In the light of cause and effect, what seemed to be bad or foolish action can be understood as fair and reasonable.

Reframe for acceptance

If the deeper understanding does not change their mind you can reframe the situation in a number of ways to help them change their viewpoint.

Examples of reframing include:

  • Showing how apparent bad acts of others were simple coping under difficult circumstances.
  • Framing a bad act as a one-off rather than indicating a bad person.
  • Indicating how a failure is a mistake rather than evidence of a bad person.
  • Escalating or downplaying the importance of something.

Reframing effectively says 'Don't look at it like that -- look at it like this'. It shows different viewpoints and how these are better.

Handle responses

Sales people do objection-handling when customers offer excuses and do not want to buy. Likewise, you need to figure out what to say when when the person you are talking to resists your advances, refusing to hear the message and giving reasons why it is invalid or does not apply to them.

Fortunately, there are many ways to handle this and the first is to go back around the loop by first listening to their perception, building their understanding further and reframing in different ways. People avoid the truth for reasons which are valid for them and it can be very helpful to find and address these.

While it can be frustrating when people do not seem to hear or understand, it is seldom helpful to get angry. Calm, concerned and reasoned responses will eventually win the day.


This looks like a long process and it can be. It can also be used quickly, even within an ongoing conversation.

Using this process is helpful not only for getting people accept uncomfortable truths, it is also a useful framework for any persuasion. If you first review what you want and then engage the person rather than talking at them then you will be far more successful.

The opposite of tact is bluntness, where you present the unvarnished truth, simply and plainly, without any qualification. While this often is inappropriate, it can sometimes be successful. First, if you already have a trusting relationship where the other person knows you have good intent, then bluntness provides a quick and easy communication. Another time where bluntness can work is where tact has failed and shock tactics seem the only remaining option. This approach should be used with care as it may only exacerbate the situation. Yet it can also surprise the other person so much, they stop and listen. Sometimes also some people do not appreciate the tactful approach and directness is the best way for them.

See also

Empathy, Leadership


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