The only thing worse than getting really bad news is having to give it to someone you love. Sometimes you have no choice to but to step up and have a tough conversation. Before you say anything, you know your words can hurt and change their life in some way.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Steps for Breaking Bad News to a Loved One
- Breaking Bad News Examples
- Frequently Asked Questions: Breaking Bad News
Reassuring someone who’s just heard devastating news can be difficult, especially if you’re the one who told them. But if you prepare for your conversation, you can make the task more bearable for you and create a safe space for them. Look through these tips to help you anticipate your loved one’s needs as you break bad news to them.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, it's tough to handle both the emotional and technical aspects of their unfinished business without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
Steps for Breaking Bad News to a Loved One
Before saying anything to your loved one, take a few moments to plan your approach. While you can’t take away your loved one’s pain or shock, you can give it a softer place to land. Even if you don’t have much time, consider the following steps to make the task easier for both of you.
1. Take care of yourself first
As the saying goes, put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting anyone else. Try to avoid breaking bad news when you’re upset, if possible. Address your emotional reaction before talking to your loved one, even if you only get a few minutes to yourself. Allow the first wave of emotions to move through you until you can think more clearly. You may also help your loved one by identifying your feelings, so pay attention to how you react.
Acknowledge that this is a hard thing to do, both to yourself and your loved one. Nobody likes sharing bad news. It’s usually a surprise to the other person and it can also be difficult to soften the blow. Cut yourself some slack for struggling with your side of the process. Do your best and understand it will be hard for both of you.
2. Consider your setting
Your loved one may react in unexpected ways when you deliver the news. Choose a setting that offers a calm space and few distractions. You may want to consider inviting another support person to be there with you. Here are some suggestions:
- Choose a place that won’t be too noisy or busy. You want your loved one to hear you clearly.
- Pick a place that offers some privacy, quiet, and space to move around. A room with a door is ideal, even better if it’s one they could stay in for a while if they need to be alone.
- When dealing with a strong emotional reaction, a small room can make people feel trapped. Some people pace or feel like standing up when they get upset.
- Be aware of your positioning in the room. Place yourself away from the door so your loved one could easily leave the room if they want to.
3. Stay calm
Your calm and reassuring presence won’t change how bad the news is for your loved one. But it can help them get through the initial rush of emotion. Set the expectation that you are steady and calm, that they can count on you to help them through the moment. By avoiding raising your voice, you can help change the tone of the conversation and keep it calm. Move to a quieter location if background noise is an issue.
Also, be aware of your body language. Make sure your posture and body language are as relaxed as possible. Sit down or try to stay in the same position as much as you can. Avoid pacing or moving around, especially if the space is small. Your extra movement may be agitating to your loved one.
4. Don’t wait long and do it in person if you can
Don’t wait to deliver your news. Waiting will only prolong your stress and won’t make the news any better. Take some time to prepare for the conversation and choose the quickest and best way to deliver the message.
Bad news is delivered best in person. If meeting up with your loved one won’t delay you much, your physical presence can mean the world to them. You can offer a comforting touch and show your sincerity in non-verbal ways.
When speaking in person isn’t possible, these options can help you deliver the news promptly. Each choice has pros and cons to consider, so choose the method that makes the most sense for them.
- Video chat
- Pro - Allows you to give the news promptly if you can’t be there in person.
- Con - Not everyone has access or is comfortable using video technology.
- Pro - Everyone has access to phones. Some may prefer this to keep their reaction more private.
- Con - Leaves out some non-verbal communication.
- Typed text (instant messaging, texting, email)
- Pro - Can be quicker for some people, easier if in a noisy situation. Better than waiting a long time.
- Con - The message might not get to the person right away. Limited ability to have a conversation. Impersonal, little emotional context, and no physical presence.
5. Be truthful and direct
Tell your news in as few words as possible to get to the point. You may need to share some other information, but don’t string it along. Get to the critical news right away and share the background story if they are asking for it or if they are ready for it.
Another tip is to avoid sugar-coating your message or giving false hope. Doing so could create another disappointment down the road. If it's possible to change the situation, keep your comments brief and factual.
6. Prepare your message
Being prepared helps you deliver your news with less chance of becoming emotional yourself. But be aware of sounding like a robot. Keep sincerity in mind and make an effort to talk naturally, like yourself. Your presence is what will reassure them, so be your normal self as much as you can.
Practice what you’ll say a few times. If your emotion wells up when you speak, rehearsing your message can keep you moving through the words. Your body memory will kick in and get you through the toughest parts.
7. Speak at the appropriate level for the person
As you prepare your message, consider the person you’re telling. Your goal is to deliver news in a way your loved one can easily understand. Make your message simple and clear no matter who you’re speaking to. Mature adults will appreciate an honest and respectful approach.
If you’re talking to a child or person with limited mental capacity, take extra care with your word choice. Here are some options to consider:
- Use concrete words you know they will understand.
- Avoid using vague terms, especially when talking about death.
- If the bad news is about something that can’t be changed, be clear about this. Avoid giving false hope or mixed messages.
- Be respectful, even with a simplified message.
- Explain your emotions to help them feel safe sharing theirs.
9. Understand your loved one’s state of mind first
Knowing your loved one’s state of mind can help you with your approach. If they’ve had a rough day, acknowledge that first and be understanding. Pay attention to that first so they know you care.
Don’t sugarcoat or skirt the truth about the bad news, even if your loved one is struggling. Instead, consider how well they are coping at the moment and give the news in smaller bites, if needed.
10. Share the news sitting down
Start the conversation by sitting down, and suggest that your loved one do the same. Be sure seating is available even if they don't sit down right away. Your loved one may feel unsteady or faint if they're shocked by what you say.
Sitting down also puts you and your loved one on the same level. This can be more comfortable for both of you, allowing for better eye contact and physical contact.
11. Let your loved one react
No matter how calmly you deliver the news, your loved one may get emotional in some way. You aren’t trying to keep them from getting upset. You are giving your loved one the safest and most comfortable setting to hear the news.
Your loved one could become numb and seem dazed, or they may cry and become angry. Mixed emotions are normal and can be difficult to express. Be a good listener and try not to interrupt them or cut them off.
You may also catch some heat as the bearer of bad news. Understand that your loved one may react poorly and direct their emotion toward you, even if you are just the messenger. Don’t take their first reaction to heart if they lash out at you. Bad news takes adjustment and emotions can take a long time to unfold. Get through the initial reaction and handle the details later.
12. Offer support
Once you’ve delivered the news, offer your loved one support as they cope. Depending on the situation, you may start helping them cope right away. And if they want space, respect that and reach out again later. Here are a few ways you can support your loved one as they deal with the news.
- If it works, spend time together right after sharing the news.
- Offer condolences or sincere words of empathy for their pain.
- Offer practical help like running errands, cooking meals, or household tasks.
- If the bad news means they need to make major changes in their life like moving or looking for a job, offer to help them with these tasks.
- If the news affects you as well, share how you are coping or adjusting.
- Reach out regularly and offer a listening ear.
Breaking Bad News Examples
When you have bad news to share, finding the right words can be tough. You may be emotional yourself, or you may anticipate the other person’s reaction. Here are a few examples and word choices for breaking bad news.
- “I’m afraid I need to share some bad news with you.”
- “I have something to tell you, and I wish it were better news.”
Give the other person a heads-up that you have to share something uncomfortable. This allows them to center in and prepare to listen to you. It may feel awkward, but it sets the tone for what’s to come.
- “I have cancer.”
- “I’ve lost my job.”
- “Your uncle John was in an accident this morning, and it doesn’t look good.”
Say the meat of your news in the fewest words possible and in plain language. You can add details and context after they’ve absorbed the essential parts. Whatever you need to say, be sure it doesn’t have jargon or a big lead-up story. Once a person knows there’s a bad ending, anxiety and tension can build up until they learn the worst part.
- “I can see this is hard for you.”
- “You’ve been quiet. Anything you want to share or ask?”
- “Do you want to hear full details now, or just the key points?”
Give the other person some time to absorb the shock. It’s OK to comment on their emotions without sounding like you know exactly what they’re going through. Check in with them before moving on with the story. They may not be in a mental space to hear more details for a few moments.
- “So in a nutshell, I had a heart attack and I'll need surgery to repair the damage. The doctors think I can recover, but it will take some time.”
Recap your news briefly after you’ve explained everything. Emotion can interfere with a person’s ability to comprehend and think clearly. So make sure the other person can walk away understanding the main points of your news.
You could also consider asking them to repeat what you said back to you. This may be more critical when the bad news is about them and requires action on their part. They’ll need to be able to recall the foundation of the bad news and what it means for them.
Frequently Asked Questions: Breaking Bad News
When you have important but upsetting information to share, you may worry about stumbling out of the gate when you start talking. It’s understandable, but there are ways to make it easier on yourself. Take these tips to heart when deciding how to deliver the news.
When’s the best time to break bad news?
There’s no perfect time to break bad news, but some circumstances make it easier to process. Here are a few tips and suggestions to start with.
- If the time and situation allow, pull your loved one aside when they aren’t in the middle of something.
- Try to avoid sharing the news when they are likely to be tired, like first thing in the morning or just before bed.
- Leave enough time for you to be there while they absorb the shock.
One research study suggests that the ideal time to deliver bad news is when a person is already feeling stressed. Why? Because they are already somewhat primed to expect negativity. With that mindset, they can better accept and adapt to more bad circumstances. It sounds counterintuitive, but it may mean that the ideal situation may not have a huge impact.
What should you avoid saying when delivering bad news?
- “I know exactly how you feel.”
- Saying this may sound kind and empathetic. You may even have some idea or experience with this situation. But in reality, everyone’s emotional reaction in a given moment is unique.
- “It’s going to be OK.”
- Unless you actually know it’s OK, don’t say this. Otherwise, saying it will be OK can sound like you’re glossing over their shock or emotional struggle.
- “It could be worse.”
- “At least it’s not XYZ.”
- Minimizing the impact of your bad news may sound like the kind thing to do, but it actually stamps down the validity of the other person’s reaction. Allow their reaction to be genuine and authentic, whatever it is.
What should you avoid doing when delivering bad news?
Delivering bad news can be stressful. Do your best to cope with your own discomfort so it doesn’t interfere with your ability to be supportive.
Pacing and not speaking clearly or slowly enough
Find some ways to burn off any nervous energy. Otherwise, the anxiety may unintentionally create a few problems:
- Adding more stress to an already difficult situation
- Making your voice difficult to hear and understand
- Causing you to speak faster and with less clarity
Leaving as soon as you share your news
You may be dreading the moment you drop your news on the other person. Disappearing right away may feel like the easiest way to avoid feeling bad, but it can leave the other person hanging. Come prepared for some discomfort so you can be there for the other person when they first react.
Acting cold or impersonal
Your way of coping may be to remain more stoic with your feelings, and that’s OK. But recognize that the other person may be experiencing shock or an unexpected surge of emotion. Acknowledge their experience and show compassion as they react.
Breaking Bad News to a Loved One
Bad news is never easy to hear. With some preparation and care, the task of breaking bad news can be less overwhelming for you. You’ll be there for your loved one, no matter how much it hurts. Help them know they aren’t alone in their pain.
- Holeywell, Ryan. “Let’s Talk.” Texas Medical Center, November 1, 2017, tmc.edu.
- Mooneyham, GenaLynne C., MD “Helping your children deal with bad news.” Duke University School of Medicine, August 7, 2018, pediatrics.duke.edu.