Confession: I hate giving someone bad news.
I hate the anticipation of it. I hate the conversation itself. I hate the feeling I’m left with afterward, even if it has to be done, even if I know it was the right thing to do.
I hate imagining how the other person feels receiving the news, and I hate feeling responsible for that experience. I think I actually hate that part the most, because I’ve been on the receiving end of bad news so many times — and felt the embarrassment, frustration, and disillusionment it creates — so I experience the whole thing twice: once for myself as the messenger, and once again for them as the recipient.
And yet bad news is an unavoidable part of life. Any situation of power, responsibility or enterprise will eventually create the need for these difficult conversations, and knowing how to handle them is one of the most important skills we can master.
Still, most people never do.
Knowing that recipients often shoot the messenger, they punt the delivery of bad news to someone else, hoping to sidestep the awful moment as much as possible — a well-documented phenomenon known as the mum effect, which I’ve seen in every single company I’ve ever worked for over the years.
And when people do step up to the bad-news plate, they still tend to avoid it — by hedging, softening or otherwise lying to keep the unpleasantness to a minimum.
Which, I’ve found, only creates more pain and dysfunction down the line.
So a few years ago, I decided to finally tackle this intimidating skill.
I dug into the research surrounding bad news, and began implementing it in my own life — with vendors, with partners, and with family members.
I found that the language I used to deliver bad news had a profound connection to the thoughts I had about it, and that bringing the two together made a massive difference in the outcome.
And I realized that the bad news itself was only part of the equation — that bad news was actually an opportunity to achieve something bigger, if I only chose to look at it that way.
Most importantly, I discovered that the way I had been thinking about bad news my whole life — as an antagonistic relationship between me and the other person — was creating most of the drama I had been trying so hard to avoid, and that there was a much more peaceful and productive way to navigate these tough conversations.
And it all began with understanding the recipient as well as I understood myself.
Identify with your audience.
When you have to deliver bad news, it’s easy to fixate on your experience: how you feel about it, how you’re going to get through it, what the other person’s reaction will mean for you, and how to deliver the news in a way that minimizes as much pain and anxiety as possible.
In the process, it’s easy to discount or ignore the other person’s experience, which is often much more dramatic than your own. Caught up in the burden of breaking the news, you can easily forget to empathize with the other person, imagine the interaction from their point of view, and consider what expectations they might have for how the conversation will go.
As a result, most people deliver bad news quickly, transactionally, and — even if they don’t intend to — callously. They do this because their main objective is to convey the necessary information and end the exchange as quickly as possible. They forget that while they’ve been able to live with the reality of the bad news for some time — whether it’s a few minutes or a few weeks — the recipient is usually hearing the news for the first time in that moment. And, of course, the messenger and recipient are on opposite sides of this exchange, with different interests and expectations around the same event.
The best messengers take the time to understand the recipient. They empathize with them. They listen. They do their homework. They consider the recipient’s circumstances, history and stake in the conversation. They explore their individual psychology — their temperament, their values and beliefs, their strengths and vulnerabilities. And they ask themselves how they would want the news broken to them, if they were a similar person in the same position.
Then they use all of that data to tailor the message in the most compassionate, effective way — using two key variables to match their language to their audience.
Locus of Control
How a recipient of bad news views their role in the conversation significantly affects the way they process bad news. Understanding that role — and tailoring your message accordingly — can transform the way the conversation goes down.
One interesting study, for example, found that a medical patient’s locus of control — the degree to which they believe they have control over the outcome of events in their lives — has a major role to play in the way they process a tough diagnosis.
Patients with a higher internal locus of control — and therefore attribute their health to their own behaviors — preferred to be spoken to empathically, with a special sensitivity to the doctor’s wording and time.
Meanwhile, those with a higher external locus of control — attributing their health to chance, fate, or the influence of “powerful others” (such as doctors) — were more sensitive to the doctor’s time and degree of hope.
In other words, a person’s locus of control changes their needs and expectations of the messenger, and makes them sensitive to different aspects of the messenger’s delivery.
And these findings apply to all settings and scenarios, not just medical ones. The research shows that understanding a recipient’s locus of control is essential to tailoring the disclosure of bad news to their specific psychology.
An employee who feels they’re responsible for their own career and success, for example, will tend to respond better to honesty and empathy from the manager who’s firing them. They’ll key into the words the manager uses more, and value the time they take to do it.
But an employee who feels they’re at the whim of uncontrollable variables (like economic forces, management preferences, and office politics) will tend to look to the manager to provide them with hope for the future — for example, in the form of encouragement and positivity about their employment prospects going forward.
So taking the time to understand a recipient’s locus of control is a smart investment, especially when the outcome of the bad news matters a great deal. We need to understand how people view themselves in a difficult situation to know how to guide them through it.
Especially if we want them to follow our advice.
In addition to being thoughtful and professional, tailoring your news to your audience is also one of the best ways to get them to do what you want.
Consider this fascinating study, which found that the way doctors deliver news to patients strongly influences patients’ future therapy decisions.
When a doctor delivered bad news effectively, the researchers found, patients were more likely to continue with their treatment rather than stop it. They were also more likely to continue that treatment with the same specialist, or to find another one.
But when patients changed doctors, changed their treatment or decided to quit treatment altogether, it was because the bad news was delivered poorly — specifically, in terms of the doctor’s behavior, the amount of time the doctor devoted to the patient’s visit, the doctor’s lack of attention, the usage of medical terminology, the doctor’s honesty, and the doctor’s emotional and cognitive support for the patient.
Which can teach us a lot about how the effective delivery of bad news can help achieve desired objectives in all kinds of settings.
In a corporate context, that objective might be to have an employee leave the organization peacefully, transition smoothly, and land another job as soon as possible.
In a law-enforcement context, that objective might be to have a victim remain calm, stay safe, and seek support.
In a family conflict scenario, that objective might be to have a relative seek help or improve ties with other family members.
Whatever the particular scenario is, your success in achieving the bigger objective of your bad news directly depends on the way you deliver it.
And as the previous study shows, that comes down to how you behave, the amount of time you give to the recipient, the amount of attention you offer them, the kind of language you use, how much mental-emotional support you offer them, and — perhaps most importantly, as multiple studies now show — your degree of honesty in the interaction.
In other words, if you want someone to do what you want, you need to give them bad news in the right way.
And a lot of that skill comes down to the words you use.
Don’t beat around the bush.
Because bad news is so tough to break — for the messenger and for the recipient — most people’s natural instinct is to soften it.
And as anyone who’s dealt with the epidemic of “corporate speak” knows, one of the most common ways of softening bad news is to use language that obscures it — even if it makes the news even harder to decipher.
If you’ve ever gone through “organizational realignment” rather than “mass layoffs,” encountered “a bit of a setback” instead of a “clear failure,” or asked someone to “part ways” rather than “leave immediately,” then you know how this kind of language can often make the bad news worse, even if the messenger’s intentions are good.
In trying to deliver bad news kindly, we often become dishonest.
We do this, of course, out of a mix of empathy and fear. We don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings. We don’t try to create any more pain than is necessary.
But we also do this out of self-preservation. Bad news often makes the messenger as uncomfortable as the recipient (sometimes even more so), and few people actually enjoy being the bad guy.
So most people beat around the bush, hoping that their vague language will make the news go down easier.
But the latest research actually suggests the opposite.
A famous 2012 study called “How the doc should (not) talk,” for example, demonstrated how important language really is in the delivery of bad news.
In the study, healthy volunteers watched an online video of a physician who pretended to diagnose them with a type of arthritis that affects the spine.
In some videos, the doctor used affirmations in some videos (“this news is bad”). In other videos, the doctor used negations (“this news is not good”).
The doctor also alternated between framing the news in a positive light (“most patients find it easy to live with this disease”) and framing it in a negative one (“most patients find it difficult to live with this disease”).
Afterward, participants were asked a series of questions, including whether they would’ve followed the doctor’s treatment recommendations if they had actually been ill.
The researchers concluded that doctors should use affirmations to deliver positively framed news and negations to deliver negatively framed news.
In other words, tiny linguistic variations can have a major impact on the message, the evaluation of the messenger, and the person’s willingness to follow orders.
What does this mean for delivering bad news in other areas of life?
In short, it means that we should match our phrasing to the content of our message, because matching the two creates more honesty and transparency.
Matching Phrasing: A Case Study in Honest Messaging
Let’s consider the example of letting an employee go using every permutation of the affirmation/negation structure with positively-framed and negatively-framed news.
|Positively-framed news||“I’m afraid I have some bad news. The company has decided to let you go. But many laid-off employees find the transition to be an opportunity to look for an even better job.”||“I’m afraid the news I’m going to tell you is not good. The company has decided to let you go. But many laid-off employees find the transition to be an opportunity to find an even better job.”|
|Negatively-framed news||“I’m afraid I have some bad news. The company has decided to let you go. Many laid-off employees find it difficult to go through this process.”||“I’m afraid the news I’m going to tell you is not good. The company has decided to let you go. Many laid-off employees find it difficult to go through this process.”|
What’s fascinating about this study is that the basic message is, at its core, the same. But if you tweak the delivery a tiny bit, then the overall effect changes dramatically.
You can actually feel that when you read through the examples above.
If an affirmation is used to deliver negatively-framed news, or a negation is used to deliver positively-framed news, the disconnect between language and message creates tension, confusion, and a sense of subtle deception. (Those are the cells in red.)
But if an affirmation is used to deliver positively-framed news, or a negation is used to deliver negatively-framed news, then the parallel between language and message feels a little easier to swallow. You get the sense that the message is more honest, simply because the delivery and the content mirror each other. (Those are the cells in green.)
Of course, that doesn’t mean that being fired automatically becomes good news. And it doesn’t mean that more honest language makes someone’s termination a walk in the park.
But it does mean that using clear and transparent language directly affects how well the person processes the news. As a result, it also helps reduce the resentment, blame, and conflict that messengers create when they’re not completely honest about what they’re saying.
A big part of what people process in bad news is the messenger’s degree of honesty. And we understand honesty, in large part, by the words someone chooses to tell us something.
If we feel that their words are contrary to the content — hopeful when it’s actually disastrous, kind when it’s actually cruel, vague when it’s actually specific — then our internal b*llshit meters immediately pick up on the dishonesty, and that deception colors the entire interaction. Most participants, the study found, valued clarity and directness over other characteristics, like kindness.
Or, as the researchers put it, “If you’re on the giving end [of a piece of bad news], yeah, absolutely, it’s probably more comfortable psychologically to pad it out — which explains why traditional advice is the way it is.
“But this survey is framed in terms of you imagining you’re getting bad news and which version you find least objectionable. People on the receiving end would much rather get it this way” — that is, the more honest way.
This is why ER doctors, police officers, and other people in positions of authority are now being trained to deliver news that is clear, direct, and honest, even if it’s also more painful. They’re being taught not to hide behind ambiguous language, which is tempting when the last thing you want is to cause someone additional pain.
Because, as multiple studies now show, we actually value honesty much more than we think, even if it comes at the expense of our feelings. In fact, in many cases, it’s dishonesty that makes a piece of bad news so hard to swallow.
The Art of Softening: When Beating Around the Bush Actually Helps
So as we’ve seen, beating around the bush doesn’t help. But individual psychology still plays a huge role in the way you deliver bad news — especially when a piece of bad news comes up against a strong set of beliefs, says another recent study.
According to these researchers, most people really do prefer directness, candor, and very little (if any) buffer when they receive bad news.
But if you find yourself trying to change someone’s firmly-held opinion, then your delivery actually might benefit from softer language or linguistic buffers.
As one of the researchers explained, “People’s belief systems are where they’re the most touchy. So any message that affects their belief system, their ego identity, that’s what you’ve got to buffer.”
So if a doctor is trying to persuade a patient to pursue a treatment plan they don’t believe in, an executive is trying to make a manager pivot away from a cherished plan, or a parent is trying to make their child reassess their values, then buffering a piece of bad news can actually help those recipients come around to the messenger’s point of view.
For example, the doctor could ease into the diagnosis by acknowledging the patient’s beliefs and anxieties before presenting different treatment options.
The executive could praise the manager’s good work up till now, and recognize how difficult it is to pivot before exploring the advantages of the new strategy.
The parent could remind their child that they respect their views and decisions and only want what’s best for them before offering advice.
Buffering and softening in this way lowers the recipient’s defenses against new information. It also recognizes their feelings and experiences, and paves a more gentle way forward.
Whenever a piece of bad news comes up against a firmly-held belief — whether it’s an ethical position, a professional conviction or a lifestyle preference — then buffering and softening can make the difference between acceptance and rejection, agreement and conflict.
Which is a great reminder that while the science on honesty is helpful, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the delicate art of delivering bad news.
The best approach, in my experience, is to apply the principles from the research uniquely to each individual in question. Of course, doing that requires patience, analysis, time, and a willingness to consider the recipient’s experience as much as your own.
In other words, honesty is crucial in delivering bad news well. But it also has its limits. Sometimes, when it comes to persuading someone else, we need to work up to the bad news slowly, and calibrate our honesty and our sensitivity in just the right amounts.
Accept that bad news will always create some conflict.
Many people avoid delivering bad news because they dread the possibility of blowback. Breaking a difficult revelation often provokes anger, blame, and judgment in the recipient, and leads to dramatic conflicts — even when the bad news isn’t the messenger’s fault.
Just like George Clooney’s character confronts in the movie Up in the Air. As a “corporate downsizer” — that is, professional terminator — his job is basically to be the bad guy on behalf of companies that are letting people go.
Talk about shooting the messenger, right? It’s one of the oldest dynamics in human behavior, and one of the most terrifying. It might also be unavoidable.
As new Harvard University research shows, people are prone to disparage those who tell them things they don’t want to hear. In other words, people are wired to shoot the messenger.
In one experiment, for example, participants were eligible to win $2 in a simple game of chance. A researcher pulled a slip of paper from a hat that indicated whether the participant would win $2 or not, and a second person — designated as the messenger — conveyed the result to the participant (i.e., whether they had won the $2). Participants were then asked how much they liked or disliked the messenger.
People who received the bad news disliked the messenger much more than the people who had won — despite the fact that the messenger was completely “innocent.”
The messenger clearly had no control over whether the participant won the $2, and participants recognized that lack of control. Still, the participants “shot the messenger” anyway.
The researchers found the exact same dynamic between airline travelers and gate agents who reported delayed flights, and between medical patients and doctors delivering bad news.
Even though the gate agents had no control over the delay, participants still expressed dislike for them. And even when doctors had no control over the diagnosis, participants disliked the doctors delivering bad news more than the doctors delivering good news.
What’s even more interesting?
When participants received bad news from the doctor, they were more likely to say that the doctor was hoping that they were sick. In other words, they ascribed an intention to the bad news, even if there wasn’t one.
Recipients of bad news do this, say the researchers, because of their desire to make sense of the unexpected events shaping their lives.
In order to understand the perceived randomness of bad news, people tend to erroneously ascribe agency to innocent messengers — believing that the messengers actually have malicious motives, even if their motives are good or neutral.
In other words, they shoot the messenger because it helps them make meaning of their lives.
Once the instinct to “sense-make” gets activated, the human brain begins to generate explanations, causes, and connections for what’s happening. And as it turns out, a critical part of creating an explanation for a given event is blaming someone else.
So what do we do about this?
Do we warn people not to blame us when we deliver bad news? Maybe, but that probably won’t help much. Do we avoid the situation entirely? We could. But then we usually end up creating even more dysfunction down the line.
Instead, the study suggests, we have to work on the way we convey bad news.
Using Language to Reduce Conflict
According to the research, recipients of bad news are less likely to dislike a messenger when the messenger clearly conveys the benevolence of their motives.
For example, you might preface a piece of bad news by saying something like, “My goal in this conversation is to make this as easy as possible,” “I want you to know that I’m rooting for you in all this,” or “This will be a tough conversation, but I’m here to help you make sense of it and move forward.”
This also confirms other research that found that prefacing negative feedback with a piece of positive feedback leads employees to take that negative feedback more seriously — and to like the feedback-giver more.
Framing bad news in this way might not make you the recipient’s best friend, of course. But it can undercut their hard-wired tendency to resent you when the bad news comes, just by signaling that you have a good intention. It’s a remarkably easy thing to do, and incredibly effective. But few messengers understand just how important it is to put into practice.
Sucks to Be the Messenger
All of these techniques are proven to minimize messenger blowback. But at the end of the day, messengers have to accept that their role will always come with some degree of conflict.
In some cases, bad news will provoke rage or blame in the recipient. In others, it will provoke embarrassment or sadness. Some bad news will ruin your goodwill forever. Other bad news will temporarily strain a relationship, but ultimately lead to a healthier dynamic.
But breaking bad news will rarely be pleasant, and it will never be completely conflict-free. Hoping that it will — and bending over backwards to make it happen — is a pointless enterprise. And as we’ve seen, it’s precisely that instinct to avoid conflict that can actually make the conflict worse.
To be great messengers, we don’t just have to be great communicators, empaths, and strategists. We also have to be willing to just be the messenger, knowing that that role will always create some conflict, provoke difficult feelings, and challenge the relationship between the messenger and the recipient.
The tools and principles we’ve discussed in this piece will mitigate that conflict, but they will never remove it entirely. This is a fact of life. Whenever goals compete, interests collide, and expectations diverge from reality, there will be bad news. There will be someone who has to break it, and there will be someone who doesn’t want to hear it, and that will create tension that is simply unavoidable.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, I know. But it’s something that every person in a position of responsibility eventually discovers. The sooner you embrace it, the easier it becomes to deliver bad news — if only because you stop expecting bad news to become a walk in the park.
Accepting that reality, however, opens up a new possibility for the delivery of bad news.
Because even if we can’t change the fact that the messenger will always be shot, we can shift the way we view our role as messenger — and therefore our relationship with the recipient.
View bad news as a partnership.
As we’ve seen, the antagonism inherent in bad news will always create some kind of conflict.
But a lot of this antagonism gets created not in the bad news itself, but in the relationship between the messenger and recipient.
As long as the messenger and recipient are sitting on opposite sides of the table, so to speak, there will always be conflict, because the two parties are at odds. This is the default position of bad-news conversations, and it’s where most messengers remain.
Of course, many times we actually are on opposite sides of the table — sometimes literally — but that doesn’t mean we have to be on opposite sides of the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is always about a goal.
Every piece of bad news carries an objective. This objective is the goal of the conversation beyond the delivery of the bad news itself. It’s the ultimate purpose of that bad news — the thing you want the recipient to pursue as a result of it. For a doctor, that’s getting a patient to pursue their treatment plan. For a parent, that’s getting a child to see things their way.
In other words, it’s the bigger reason you’re having the conversation — the “so now what?” of the bad news.
From that perspective, the news is really just the data that makes the case for that bigger goal. And as it turns out, focusing on that goal is the key to delivering bad news in the best way possible.
Because when you have a clear handle on your goal, a few interesting things happen.
First, the conversation becomes about something bigger than just the bad news.
An oncologist doesn’t give a patient a cancer diagnosis for the sake of it; they want the patient to heal. An executive coach doesn’t critique a client to tear them down; they want the client to become a better leader. In both cases, the bad news opens a window into a solution — the process of becoming healthier, stronger, more effective.
The more the doctor or coach frames the conversation around that goal, the less the patient or client will fixate on the raw negativity of the news, and the harder it will be for them to blame the messenger or resist their recommendations.
At the same time, the bad news will take on new meaning. It won’t just be difficult data to bear. It’ll have significance. It’ll have purpose. It’ll be a powerful tool in the more important enterprise of getting better — which is only possible because of the bad news.
You can find the same principle in every scenario, even if the news isn’t life-threatening. Let’s imagine a romantic break-up, for example — one of the most difficult instances of delivering bad news.
Once you decide to split up with someone, you could orient the conversation around the break-up itself. I feel it’s time to part ways, you might say. I don’t think this is working for the following reasons, you might explain. My feelings and priorities have changed, you might add. All of which are fair points. But — as we all know — they probably won’t make the conversation very pleasant.
But if you take the conversation one step further — to what the bigger goal of the break-up is — then you have an opportunity to shift the meaning and tone of the entire conversation.
I want us both to be with people we deserve, you might say. I don’t feel I’m going to give you what you want, and I know that’s important to you, you might explain. I know this is a painful conversation, but if we decide to part ways, I think we can both start working toward the lives and relationships we really need.
These might not be easy things to hear. But as long as they’re true, they are deeply meaningful ones. Because by focusing on that larger objective, the breakup isn’t just bad news, but a necessary step in a larger process that will — the messenger hopes — lead to an ultimately positive outcome.
Second, the messenger can work with the recipient toward that bigger objective, making them partners.
In addition to creating meaning, focusing on the larger objective also shifts the dynamic between the messenger and the recipient.
If delivering the bad news is the only goal of the conversation, then messenger and recipient will always be at odds. How could it be otherwise? The messenger enters the conversation with the goal of conveying something difficult, and the recipient leaves the conversation having to deal with the fallout.
But if delivering the bad news is just part of the conversation — if you use the news to work toward a bigger objective — then you create an opportunity to work with the recipient, not against them.
You and the recipient are still bound in a difficult conversation, for sure. But that difficult conversation becomes an opportunity for you to tag team the larger objective together. You can use the objective to transcend the default antagonism of messenger vs. recipient. With that shared goal, you can sit on the same side of the table.
It’s like that amazing scene in Up in the Air, where George Clooney fires J.K. Simmons after working for years at his company.
In one of the most intimidating and humiliating conversations possible — firing someone unexpectedly at an older age — Clooney slowly shifts the focus of the conversation from the immediate goal (termination) to the larger goal (rediscovery, reinvention, and fulfillment).
“When were you gonna stop and come back and do what makes you happy?” he asks Simmons.
“Good question,” Simmons responds, obviously still distraught, but starting to embrace a new angle on his own life. And — interestingly — hating Clooney less and less.
All because Clooney shifted the conversation from bad news to new possibilities, from difficult information to a positive outcome, from a narrow task to a shared objective.
A Special Relationship
When you find yourself having to deliver bad news, you’re connected to the recipient in a way that is very complex and very powerful.
It’s an intimate relationship, one that brings you close to the other person in a difficult moment — maybe their worst moment — in a way that neither of you probably expected.
That intimacy, I believe, creates a certain responsibility on the part of the messenger.
It’s a responsibility to find the best way to break the news, to find the most meaningful reason for breaking it, and to discover the larger objective beyond the news itself. It’s a responsibility to help, really. To create value even in the midst of suffering. To recommit to the relationship, even when it’s being strained.
I’m happy to see these values popping up more and more in our world.
In some forward-thinking companies, for example, HR departments are helping laid-off employees find their next jobs. When they do, being laid off — while still painful and scary — becomes an opportunity to find new opportunity and fulfillment with the help of their former employer.
In the case of one consulting firm that embraced this practice, I was amazed to learn that several former employees, once they landed at their new jobs, actually turned around and hired the firm that laid them off.
Which is an awesome reminder that this kind of partnership really is possible even in conflict — that the conflict actually created the opportunity for that partnership in the first place. This is one of the best examples of generosity in action — a win-win scenario born from a win-lose dynamic. And it’s not just charity: It’s also good business.
The bad-news dynamic can be antagonistic and transactional, or it can be a partnership based on empathy and a shared sense of purpose. To use a crude metaphor, you can either view the conversation as throwing someone into a burning building and hoping they’ll find a way out, or you can view the conversation itself as the burning building, and you’re both trying to help each other get out. You might have different methods and reasons for doing so, but the end goal is the same: survival, healing, and succeeding.
The worst messengers opt for the former model, and try to sidestep the difficult conversation as much as possible. The best messengers lean into it, and consciously choose the latter as a way of honoring the responsibility created by the situation.
They do this not just to deliver bad news well, but to also help create meaning out of suffering. Along the way, they discover the most exciting principle of all: that bad news is almost always good news in disguise — as long as both parties consciously choose to work toward it.
[Featured image by Ashwini Chaudhary]