How to Break Bad News In a Good Way

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Imagine that you have to tell your mother you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, or that a horrific accident has happened. Or that you have to tell an employee that her job has been made redundant. Or anything else you can think of that would provoke strong emotions very quickly.
What would you say to the receiver of the bad news to help them in that very stressful moment? One thing you shouldn’t say is, “stay calm.” If you’ve ever been told to calm down when you are emotional, you know that phrase can be like adding fuel to a fire. It never works, and it typically makes things worse.
So, what does work? It’s good to know, because there are times when we all need to have a discussion that is bound to invoke emotional reactions. And how you handle the reactions of others will help your conversation go more smoothly.

Emotional conversations typically invoke one of three reactions. The most common is zoning out (confusion or overwhelm). We don’t know what to say, so we just … go blank. Typically, we wake up in the middle of the night realizing, “Oh, I should have said …” but in the moment, we completely lose our language skills.

CTT: Typically, when we break bad news to someone it will invoke one of three reactions. Do you know how to be prepared for each one?
The other two most common reactions are tears (sadness) and shouting or aggressive behavior (anger).

Dealing with any of these isn’t easy. However, knowing that the person on the other side of a difficult conversation is likely to have one of these three reactions makes it relatively easy for you to plan what you are going to say and do to keep the situation calm.

A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with COVID-19. She decided to call all the people she had been in contact with during the past week and let them know they should be tested. She didn’t have to do it – the Department of Health would have done it for her and she could have remained anonymous. However, Sue took a braver and arguably more thoughtful approach and called each person, told them that she had been infected, and asked them to get tested too.

As predicted, Sue experienced all three typical reactions to her news.
As you can imagine, some were at a loss for words. They didn’t know what to say to her. Knowing that this was an expected reaction, Sue projected optimism, noted that she was asymptomatic, and generally reassured each person that since they had practiced social distancing when together, the likelihood of them being infected wasn’t high.

She didn’t tell them to calm down. She didn’t take it personally when they had nothing to say in response, because she realized they were probably much more concerned for themselves than they were for her. It wasn’t personal; it was a predictable reaction to an emotional conversation. By knowing this was an expected reaction, she was ready to fill in the awkward silence.

Tears are also a typical response, and in Sue’s case the tears came from her life partner. When someone shows their emotional overwhelm through tears, you need to be patient and let them experience their sadness. Telling them to calm down, or not to cry, or cracking a joke isn’t respectful of their feelings. Sue handed her partner a tissue, and waited until the emotions subsided a bit. She didn’t end the conversation, she didn’t dismiss her partner’s concerns, and she didn’t rush the conversation. She was patient.
Sue also had some angry reactions from friends. They became aggressive and accused her of putting them all in danger because she had been irresponsible. Sue told me that she hadn’t been irresponsible at all and had no idea where she had contracted the virus. Sue was not prepared for this reaction from her friends.When anger is the reaction, we need to be patient, the same way we are when we are presented with sadness as the response. We need to be very calm, avoid getting baited, and beware of responding with anger ourselves.

I can imagine that if I was Sue, it would have been very easy to lash back at my friend, insisting that I hadn’t been irresponsible. It could easily have been a friendship-ending conversation. Being prepared in case anger is the reaction is one of the best things you can do to preserve a relationship when you are breaking bad news.

CTT: Knowing that emotions will be high in an important consideration when planning a difficult discussion
Knowing that emotions will be high is an important consideration when planning one of these types of difficult discussions. Help your conversation partner deal with the situation by being prepared yourself. Knowing what to expect will ensure you are the calm one in the conversation.

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