How to Deliver Bad News

How to Deliver Bad News

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“I have bad news.” Those four simple words form a phrase that no one wants to hear. Unfortunately, bad news is a part of life and sometimes we must be the bearer of bad news. From firing someone to giving negative feedback on their work, bad news is difficult to deliver. While this task is never fun, here are some tips to help break the news.

  1. Prepare

When delivering bad news, it is important that you get your point across. However, in the moment, to spare the individual’s feelings, it is easy to construe the message as a way to soften the blow or get the situation over with quickly. Preparing what you are going to say and how you would like to say it will help avoid this issue. Isadora Alman (2015), a licensed marriage and relationship therapist, puts it this way, “Give some thought to what you have to say rather than blurting it out. Once said, the damage is done.”

Also, it is important to prepare yourself for any response the person receiving the news could give. If the news is not taken well, the individual could become angry, yell, cry, or walk away without saying a word. Preparing for the aftermath will help you know how to respond to it.

  1. Keep it positive, but don’t joke

Being positive when delivering bad news is key to a good reception of it. For example, when giving negative feedback on someone’s work, make sure to highlight the things that were done correctly as well as what needs to be improved. Similarly, when firing an individual politely explain to them why this is occurring. Tell them the things that they did well while they were in the position, but it is not going to work out. “It’s important for you to help the recipient save face when the bad news involves a potential threat to their self-esteem,” advises Susan Whitbourne (2015), a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Additionally, it is never a good idea to joke while delivering bad news. While joking is considered positive in other settings and may feel necessary to lighten the mood, joking is not appropriate. In fact, it can be taken as disrespectful or uncaring to the person receiving the news.

  1. Share the details

“Bosses and subordinates increasingly want, expect, and even demand to know why the bad news is being delivered, whether it be a negative performance review, a budget cutback, or job layoffs” states Robert Bies (2012), a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Don’t be afraid to provide the specific details surrounding the issue at hand. Not only is it respectful, people who are being fired or critiqued deserve to know why, but it is also strategic. Laying out all the facts leaves less room for pushback from the recipient. Additionally, focusing on facts gives your message credibility and allows you to focus more on the information rather than the emotion that may be involved.

  1. Listen

According to research, bad news is cognitively more engaging and takes more time for the listener to process (Whitbourne, 2015). After breaking the news, give the individual the necessary time to think and respond to what you have said. Allowing the recipient to speak their mind and ask questions allows them to feel validated. Even if you know what they say will not change the outcome of the situation, it is important to make the person feel heard and understood.

At the end of the day, bad news is bad news. No one likes to give it or receive it. However, these four tips should come in handy next time the responsibility falls on you.

– Alli Williams ’19

Alman, I. (2015). You’re not going to like this: Delivering bad news. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Bies, R. (2012). The 10 commandments for delivering bad news. Forbes. Retrieved from

Power, R. (2017). The 8 do’s and don’ts of delivering bad news. CNBC. Retrieved from 

Van Edwards, V. (2017). The scientifically proven ways to deliver bad news. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from

Whitbourne, S. K. (2015). 5 ways to deliver bad news with a minimum of pain. Psychology Today. Retrieved from