Delivering bad news is never easy. Whether it’s “I’m breaking up with you”, “You’re fired” or “You’ve got cancer”, there’s no pleasant way to deliver these messages. There are, on the other hand, quite a number of ways to make things worse.

The first no-no is to care so much about your own comfort level that you chicken out and say nothing -- letting the other person find out the bad news indirectly or after much time has passed.

Second, is to hide behind technology to break the bad news. Sure, it may be easier to deliver your dreaded news by sending an e-mail or leaving a message on an answering machine, but how heartless can you be. (Occasionally, exceptions can be made for sojourners who can only be reached by Blackberry).

Third, you can drop a bomb on the other person at the worst possible time. “Happy Birthday and by the way, we’re done.” Be judicious with your timing, but don’t keep putting off saying what you need to say because there’s always a birthday, anniversary or holiday around the corner.

Fourth, you can drop a bomb and make a beeline for the door, without giving the other person a chance to respond to what you have just said. People will want to process the news – both intellectually - How long have you felt this way? Why am I being fired? What does this diagnosis mean?- and emotionally -- sobbing, shaking or visibly angry. Let the other person feel what he feels (unless the reaction is so out of line that you need to protect yourself from it).

Fifth, you can drop bad news and lay guilt on at the same time – known as ‘the blame the victim syndrome’. “Your diagnosis of lung cancer was caused by your smoking.” Even if the person’s behavior did legitimately contribute to the problem, this is no time to emphasize that point.

Now here are a couple of things you can do to make that tough talk easier.

If you don’t know how to begin, begin by saying just that. “I don’t know how to say this but I have some bad news to tell you.” Or, “I don’t want to hurt you (or scare you), but there’s something you need to know.” Since you will undoubtedly be nervous as you speak, it’s okay to rehearse that first line. After that, however, be spontaneous. Scripting a whole speech will only make you seem insincere and cold.

When you have bad news to share, try to end your news with a positive spin. “We are letting you go at the end of the month, but are referring you to our outplacement service.” “My diagnosis was cancer but I have confidence in my doctor and am getting the best treatment possible.”

Be charitable in your interpretation of the other person’s behavior. If you are breaking up with someone, instead of reiterating his faults and making him feel like the lowest of low, pay tribute to his good qualities. ”Though we seem to bring out the worst in each other, I know you’re a good person and I hope you meet someone else who will make you happy.” Also, own up to your part in the relationship difficulties. “I know I haven’t always met your needs nor been the best partner for you.”

No doubt about it, delivering bad news is tough. The good news - you don’t need to do it perfectly (if there is such a thing) but you can learn how to do it better. And though you may be awkward in your approach, if you are caring, kind and honest, that in itself will be good enough.

Copyright 2007

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Sapadin is a clinical psychologist, author, columnist, educator and motivational speaker. Her expertise is teaching people how to master debilitating fear, anxiety, procrastination and other self-defeating patterns of behavior.


Now I Get It! Totally Sensational Advice for Living and Loving (Outskirts Press, 2007)

Master Your Fears: How to Triumph Over Your Worries and Get On With Your Life (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). (Also published in Korean and French)

Beat Procrastination and Make the Grade: The Six Styles of Procrastination and How STUDENTS can Overcome Them (Penguin, 1999).

It’s About Time! The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them (Penguin, 1996). Also published in Japanese by Nihon Eizo Press.

Person to Person weekly column, published by Richner Communication focuses on skills and strategies for managing emotions, improving communication, enhancing relationships and personal growth.


TV and Radio media: Today Show, Good Morning America, Fox Morning News, National Public Radio (Celeste Quinn Show, Derek McGinty Show, All Things Considered), The God Squad, Canadian Broadcasting Company, the Voice of America, Good Day New York. Full media resume on request.

Print media; The New York Times, USA Today, Newsday, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health, Self, Ladies Home Journal, Prevention, First, Fitness, Bottom Line, Moxie, Redbook, Sesame Street, Lifetime, Full media resume on request.

The American Psychological Association, Smithsonian Associates, 92nd St. Y, Herman Miller, Inc, Coopers & Lybrand, Arthur Andersen, Hofstra University.