How to break bad news: experts’ tips on softening the blow the best way
When receiving bad news, most people prefer a direct approach: no preamble, no sidestepping the issue to be dealt with, and no pretence at politeness – but a slight buffer can also help prepare the person for what is to come
I learned of my father’s death over the phone. I was 19 and at work in my first job. “I have bad news. Your dad’s had a car accident.”
“Oh my god! Is he OK?” I asked. It never occurred to me, in that split second, that he might not be. A slight, embarrassed pause: “No. He’s dead.”
That, says Alan Manning, was not the right way to deliver the message. The buffer to bad news was too protracted: it suggested a positive outcome. Hope.
Manning, a linguistics professor from Brigham Young University in Utah, collaborated on a study with the University of South Alabama’s Nicole Amare, who specialises in professional communication. Between them, they concluded that when receiving bad news, most people prefer a direct, rip-the-Band-Aid-off approach: no preamble, no sidestepping the real issue, no pretence at politeness. These just heighten anxiety.
Manning said: “Our research findings indicate that different kinds of bad news need different levels of shock-tempering. Many kinds need no buffer at all: if your house is on fire, or an enemy is attacking, people want that information immediately. But in the case of bad news about the loss of a loved one, our study shows that a very short buffer is necessary.
“A very long buffer is usually counterproductive, such as a long discussion of the events leading up to a loved one’s death, for example. The listener in this case probably senses that bad news is coming and anxiety builds in anticipation of it, if the preparatory message is too long. Therefore, a short preparatory sentence is needed, but not a very long prologue.”
Clinical psychologist Tess Browne at Central Minds Clinic in Hong Kong says: “In certain situations, providing the recipient with some kind of buffer may help psychologically prepare them.” This, she says, may help moderate the way they process the news in that moment, but “is unlikely to change the residual meaning of the news to them”.
Browne suggests the news bearer “consider the situation from their perspective beforehand.” In other words, put yourself in the intended recipient’s shoes and try to empathise.
If, says Browne, you are “emotionally attuned to the receiver of the bad news,” it may help to alleviate distress a little. If, as the bearer of bad news, you “consider the broad range of possible emotional responses the receiver may experience – shock, disappointment, sadness, anger, anxiety, rejection – and how these may be physically or behaviourally exhibited by the recipient – crying, verbal or physical aggression, acting defensively, escaping the situation – it can help you prepare the delivery of bad news.”
Ask yourself, she says, “How might I think, feel and behave if someone shared this news with me? What might help ease any distress I may feel? What would make me feel worse?”
In my case, I was at my desk in a huge, busy, open plan London office. There was nowhere to hide the inevitable outpouring of grief and shock, which was loud and obvious. It would have been better, of course, had a peer at work been told first, and asked to impart the news to me, in a quiet room with some privacy.
Browne agrees that planning where and when such news is to be delivered is critical.
“In addition to considering how to communicate bad news, it’s also useful to reflect on the impact of environmental factors, such as location, timing, and the situational context. Again, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you were them, would you prefer to receive such news privately or in a more public context? Alone or with company? Are there any times of the day or days of the week you would prefer were avoided?” she says.
“The preferred context will differ between individuals, and indeed within an individual, depending on their current personal circumstances. It is important not to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach in the delivery of bad news, but instead consider individual variables which may be relevant.”
In that tiny instant between hearing my dad had had an accident, and understanding he had been killed, there was the suggestion he had survived: “I have bad news. Your dad’s had a car accident.” How, then, could the poor soul who told me have felled the blow so that I was spared hopeless optimism which exacerbated the awfulness of what I was subsequently told, I asked Manning.
It would have been better, he said, for the person to have said, “I’ve got terrible news: your father did not survive a car accident. I’m so sorry, but know that I’m here for you.”
Notice the bad news comes swiftly on in the second sentence: the buffer is brief, no pause to suggest anything positive, and then the reassurance that they would be there for me.