6 Ways to break bad news so it sucks a little less

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

At some point, we all find ourselves delivering bad news – a redundancy, an accident, a break-up. It's always going to be difficult, but here's a checklist to help you do it well.

And – so it's not all doom and gloom – Mr George Clooney will help us lighten the mood. His 2009 film Up in the Air is one massive, brilliant example of how NOT to break bad news.

George plays a 'corporate downsizer' called Ryan Bingham, whose job has him constantly flying from city to city. As he puts it:

I work for another company that lends me out to pussies... who don't have the balls to sack their own employees.

He clashes with newbie Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who thinks it would be far more cost-effective to fire people by videophone. Ouch.

1. Do your own dirty work

Even if you're a mega-boss with offices in 75 countries, make sure your managers have face-to-face conversations with anyone losing their job, facing competency proceedings or moving position.

Same goes for your personal life. I'll shout this for the people who still think it's acceptable:


Eyeball-to-eyeball is the only way to go, otherwise things can go horribly wrong. Just take a look at this clip from Up in the Air.

That said, it's important to make sure you put any professional conversations in writing soon afterwards, so that you have a clear record of who said what when.

2. Pick your moment – and your surroundings

Show respect for all bad news conversations by giving them your full attention. Ask to be left undisturbed, close the door, turn your phone off, sit facing the person, look them in the eye.

You might want to think about asking someone else to sit in. They can be a shoulder to cry on. They can reiterate or re-explain important information, and they can diffuse some of the pressure on a two-way conversation.

Don't go to a crowded restaurant.

3. Use plain English

Speak clearly, use short sentences and slow down. It's best to avoid jargon, cliché and doublespeak.

If someone is losing their job, you are making them redundant, not "letting them go". If you're dumping your girlfriend, it's more honest to say you want to break up than "spend time apart".

It's the one time you can take HR advice from Alan Sugar. At the end of the day, "you're fired" is actually better than "we've concluded your levels of competence no longer match our expectations sufficiently".

Don't you think?

4. Be prepared to listen, wait and take the flak

Now is not the moment to come over all Mr Data on someone. It is likely the person you're speaking to will experience a wave of emotion.

It's great to show a human response, but give the person space to express their feelings.

Liz, a junior doctor, told me:

Stop talking once you've delivered bad news. Be comfortable with silence. Let the patient break the silence first. Everyone reacts differently. They might have a rush of questions or cry or get angry. What they don't need is you talking on and on.

5. Don't make false promises

The worst part of Ryan Bingham's redundancy script is the ambiguous 'packet' he slides across the desk to each of his victims. The audience knows it's all meaningless corporate BS. He says they'll be in touch. We know they won't.

In that situation, I would prefer clear, practical next steps. If you're rejecting a colleague's proposal, explain why. Point them to other opportunities in the future – real ones, with dates and deadlines – or suggest they approach a mentor or complete further training.

6. Be kind to yourself

Finally, it's important to realise that being the bearer of bad tidings can be exhausting. You might need someone to comfort you afterwards.

I spoke to William, CEO of a thriving education company. He explained that breaking bad news can be a real bodyslam moment:

Even though I know it's the right decision for the organisation and for the individual, I still feel terrible. I have to detach the empathy side of me from the clear-sighted business leader side of me, and hide the former. The meetings leave a deep memory.

Take the opportunity to be kind to yourself. Curl up with a Clooney box set if that's your thing.

Whatever the news, you'll have shown your colleague, patient, pupil or friend the respect and sensitivity they deserve.

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