Are you sitting down? How to effectively communicate bad news.


Is it possible to communicate bad news well?  We think so. Here’s how.

Communicating bad news can be stressful and very unpleasant.  Yet it is sometimes unavoidable and necessary. Although you may not have the ability to remedy the difficult thing that happened, you do have the power to share the news in as kind and clear a way as possible.

Adrenalyn and the fear associated with causing someone else distress can lead communicating bad news down a path that ends up causing more undo stress for both the bearer and receiver of said news.  Here are our tips for how to shae bad news compassionately without sacrificing clarity.

Tip #1:  Timing is everything.  Unless it’s a pressing emergency which you must share immediately, wait for the right time to break the news.  Remember, the most ideal time for you may not be best for them.  Telling them while they are driving and on their cell phone might distract them on the road and put them in a dangerous situation.

Tip #2:  Framing is key.  Clarify the level of seriousness immediately.  For example, “Your brother had a bike accident but his injuries are minor and he is doing fine.”  Vs. “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this but your brother was in a bike accident.” A full fight or flight response is triggered in mere seconds so if at all possible, decrease the initial level of alarm.

“When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.” - Understanding the stress response, Harvard Medical School

Tip #3: Keep it simple.  Avoid imparting bad news using “inside baseball” that may further confuse or frustrate.  Instead of, “The average number of applicants greatly outweighed the industry average hence you being eliminated from the initial round of selection.”  Try this instead. “There were many more applicants than anticipated. As a result, you unfortunately did not make it past the first round.”

Tip #4: Silence is golden.  After imparting the news, allow the other person’s brain time to absorb and process what they just learned.  Research shows that on average, our brains take 10 seconds to process complicated information.  Even though ten seconds of silence might feel interminable, it’s important to give the other person time to process what you’ve just told them.  Say your piece….and then embrace silence.

Tip #5: Ask what they need.  After sharing the news, ask the person what they need in order to feel supported in that moment.  They may need you to repeat the information again as some research shows our brain automatically filters out and ignores bad news. They may need you to help them relay the news to others.  You might offer, “I know this is very upsetting. Please know I’m here to support you.  Let me know what would be most helpful to you at this time.”

One final piece of advice.  If you can, try and see sharing bad news as an opportunity to be the best [friend, partner, spouse, sibling] you can be.  Changing your perspective on the conversation in this way may help position you to share the news in a more calm and compassionate way.  

Good luck!  Let us know if you followed the tips above and if they worked for you at @bespokenNY.