Are you going to listen to me? The delicate art of communication! Giving bad news!

This week my posts are going to be about Communication and I start here with how to give the bad news – in this case seriously bad news, for example, about redundancy.

About a year ago I published a version of the post below!  It has been one of the most popular items on this site!

I started my working life as a nurse.  In those days we were given no preparation for giving bad news.  I can still remember feeling totally undone by the prospect of having to tell a young husband that his wife had died!  I was the only person there to give the message.  I did my best but to this day, I know that I could have done it better! I still remember every moment of the encounter with that poor man! So here is the advice which is now usually given to medical students in the UK and I believe nurses in training receive similar advice! It can be equally useful in the workplace.  Don’t under estimate the sense of loss and pain that accompanies news of redundancy!

This post is going to be concerned with, what John Nettles’ character described in a recent edition of Midsomer Murders as, ‘the delicate art of delivering bad news’

I covered giving feedback in a recent post and this is closely related, so you may wish to read that as well.

On most occasions when you give feedback your hearer is expecting a message of some kind – good or bad.  Bad news often comes as a shock, even if it is expected!  The reality and the details may be very hard to bear!  There is, and should be, a lot more to it than just saying or writing the words!

If you want to ensure there is the best possible outcome then you will need to prepare and to follow-up, as well as delivering the message itself well!


Preparing to give bad news is almost as important as actually giving it. For instance, where are you going to have the meeting?  Where you sit or stand in relation to the hearer and even what you wear is important, if the news is seriously bad.  If you have to write, then you need to think about the medium – this is not the time for a very brief email! You will need to think about how you are going to follow up and provide an opportunity to handle questions

When choosing a place, you should make sure it’s quiet with little or no chance of interruption. Make sure it’s some place you can make the person feel as comfortable as possible.  If possible, sit close to the person at eye-level with no barrier between you.  Studies have shown that many people feel isolated and alone if you sit behind a desk or some other barrier. They may also perceive you as cold and uncaring if you sit too far away.

Knowing how you should comfort really must come from what you know about the person!  For instance, if you’ve found they don’t like people sitting too close this may make them feel uncomfortable rather than at ease.

One thing that is important is for you to be very clear about the facts, the explanation behind a decision, for example, before you begin.  You also need to know the options open to the person.  In case of redundancy, what support can the person expect from HR?  In this example, identify an HR contact so that you can pass a name and telephone number onto the individual?

The worst thing you can do when giving bad news, is to give the individual the impression that you didn’t even care enough to find out the facts.  Know your material and don’t work from notes, if you can, on this occasion!  Notes can provide a barrier and you will not be able to judge their reactions so well!

Work out what your own feelings are about the situation before the meeting, and how to deal with them!  You want the person to know you are sorry but it isn’t fair to overwhelm them with your own grief!

Giving the news

Watching the person’s reaction and listening are very important while actually while giving bad news. Just from body language or the extent of eye contact, you can tell if they understand and accept what you’re saying and what emotions they are experiencing.   Be prepared for anger or despair with serious news.

It is really important to remember to speak clearly and slowly.  Don’t jump straight into the news – go through the usual courtesies at the beginning of the meeting.  In a letter warn them that you have bad news and say that you are sorry about it!

Throughout the meeting, ask them if they have any questions and if they understand what you’re telling them.    Don’t let your feelings weigh on the listener!


After you’ve given the bad news, don’t end the meeting abruptly. Ask again for questions or if they need any information repeated. Offer additional sources of information like pamphlets or the names of support groups if they are available. Make sure to pass on that name and contact details for HR.

Most of us feel somewhat lost after receiving very bad news.  One way to deal with this is to schedule another meeting shortly afterwards or to ring them to discuss how they are going to manage the time ahead.

At the very least you will want to make sure they understood what you told them and that they can respond to it as necessary. Then you may want to allow them some time alone! Just don’t rush them out of your office or wherever the meeting is taking place.  Take time to be kind – compassion costs us nothing!”

I would very much welcome your own tips on handling bad news and to hear your own experiences

I hope to publish the next post in this series on Communication on Wednesday 2nd March 2011

2 Replies to “Are you going to listen to me? The delicate art of communication! Giving bad news!”

  1. Pingback: Handle with care – bad news for the boss! | Wisewolf Talking – the simple approach to change!

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