Communication Tips: Five Tips for Breaking Bad News


The other day, I received an email to my insurance company and was shocked to find the following simple statement. “NOTES 01: – Your plan does not cover your claim of $2,000 dollars.”

It was a bad thing – I was hoping for a check that would reimburse me for a major dental work I’d done. It was not even an actual note. It reminded me more of the Monopoly chance card: “Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”

The bad news was stated in such a blunt manner that it sort of blew my mind. It’s possible that they should have at the very least written something like, “Dear Sandra, unfortunately the terms of your plan do not cover X, Y and Z. Better luck next time.” Anything that can soften the blow!

Receiving bad news and breaking it is something that we all encounter in our lives. There are better methods and better ways to communicate unpleasant news and the best ways to can make it easier for the people who are on the receiving end.

Knowing how to convey bad news is especially important in these difficult post-recession economic times. If the announcement is related to job loss or simply telling the person at work who believes that pulling jokes is hilarious but isn’t an appropriate time to think about the following suggestions to convey information that might not be a good fit.

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My Top Five Tips for Delivering Bad News

Pro-to-Pro Professionalism and treating the other person like a professional. This means using professional language, regardless of whether the bad news is delivered in person or via email.

Positive Bad News: If there is any positive news you could be able to share, first do it. Give the person a choice. “There’s good news and bad news, which do you prefer to hear first?” If you have two bits of positive news, you could opt for to go with the “sandwich” approach: good news bad news, and good news. Another option is to minimize the negative by focusing on the positive.

Accept and apologize: Put yourself in the other’s position and imagine how you would feel being told the news. Be calm and not overly emotional, but acknowledge the other person’s emotional reaction. Also, apologize for being the one to share negative information. This won’t make the news any better, but it will make the situation more human.

Honest and Straight: While you have to strive for professionalism, understanding, as well as positive, it is important to also must be precise and truthful with your details. If the jokester in the office is making everyone else insane, you must tell him the truth. “Look, Practical Joker, I’ve had numerous complaints about your practical joking. I’m sorry to ruin your fun, but it simply has to stop.”

Creative and constructive In the event that there is something you could say that would be constructive and helpful do not hesitate to say it. If you are facing being laid off, it could be a matter of advising the employee of the fact that Human Resources will provide information regarding career counseling and resume development. If it’s the case with The Practical Joker case, this could be recommending he play an online game that he can play… during the lunch break.

The reality is, of course, that sharing bad news can be difficult. I recently conducted a training with top managers on how to provide constructive feedback to their employees. (They had issues that ranged from tardiness to under-performing employees.) One of their problems was the tendency to put off the release of information. When they did finally deliver the news via email, they frequently used rude words and unsuitable formatting.

The next time you’re required to tell anyone “Go straight to jail,” attempt, at a minimum to soften the message with something like this: “I’m sorry to have to announce that you’re not going to collect $200 this time. Even if you do go straight to the jail The good news is that you’ll be able to be released, as there’s always another chance to win.

If your boss says you’re not a good writer or you don’t receive responses to your emails, The Language Lab, established by Dr. Sandra Folk, is an organization that is specialized in improving the business communication and writing skills of managers and their employees globally and nationally.


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