How To Handle Reactions To Bad News

A self-help guide for developing strategies to deliver stuff nobody wants to hear.

Breaking Bad News

No one likes to break bad news, and though you may not be able to give the news gently, you can still be sensitive or, failing that, you can yuk it up. In any event, avoid euphemisms, such as “He’s past suffering now,” when you really mean, “About time he’s gone.” Remember that silence is a powerful tool, but long silences may cause the aggrieved party to start humming.

Now, let’s start by identifying the person who receives the bad news as the aggrieved party or aggrieved, for short, and the person who bears the bad news will be known as you. And while the one who delivers the bad news may well be viewed as bad news, it is important to remember that this is a normal reaction, and not an entirely accurate description of you.

When delivering bad news, give the information clearly, in manageable chunks and in response to the aggrieved’s questions. If the content is dire, make the seriousness of this clear by wearing all black and carrying a trident. Observe the aggrieved’s reactions – if he (yes, to include she) loses consciousness, this is an indication that the aggrieved has heard enough.

Before starting to communicate any bad news, plan what will be discussed.

• First, confirm that the news is indeed bad. No sense wasting effort on someone who’ll get over it by lunchtime.

• Try to create an environment in which the aggrieved is comfortable. Candles, incense and peppermint are a good start; sing-a-longs are generally discouraged.

• Ensure privacy and openness; keep a box of tissues handy. Consider that a desk between you and the aggrieved will only serve to act as a barrier – unless of course he has a knife, in which case those tissues will come in handy stemming the blood flow until an ambulance arrives.

• Negotiate the time you have for the aggrieved. It will help them to know that you are allowing adequate time, but check your watch frequently to remind them that they’re on the clock.

• Ask the aggrieved whom, if anyone, they would like to have with them. This need not be a next of kin, but you should stop short of allowing anyone who has recently passed on.

• If the aggrieved is under 16 years of age, keep the door open.

The Element Of Shock

Remember: Bad news will cause a shock reaction, even if it is expected. Before disclosing their reactions, fears and worries, the aggrieved should be allowed to sit quietly, preferably without any sharp objects nearby.

There is always an element of shock when bad news is put into words and reality sets in. During this time, the aggrieved is unlikely to retain any further information or even hear what is said. At times such as these, when words become meaningless, consider bringing in a mime.

In a busy environment, it may be difficult to give enough time to someone who seems unable to grasp the situation. Understand your limitations and suggest that the aggrieved sit outside and cool his heels until you can find someone dumb enough to take your place.

Sometimes it is difficult to gauge the aggrieved’s reactions. His words might indicate acceptance of a situation, but his body language may suggest something quite different. To assess the situation properly, it is useful to tell the aggrieved how you are interpreting his reaction. For instance, you might say, “You say that you understand, but you look a bit puzzled to me.” This allows the aggrieved time to reconsider the propriety of actually shooting the messenger, while affording you an extra moment or two to reflect on the fine art of groveling.

Keep in mind that the more information you give at any one time, the less will be remembered. Start with the salient facts, and only move on when the aggrieved has actually come back from the bathroom.

Learn to listen attentively and acknowledge the aggrieved’s reactions. For example, practice nodding in a mirror; keep a slice of onion in your shirt pocket – when an empathetic response is required, lean your head forward and inhale deeply. He will think you are sighing, and the resulting copious flow of tears will earn you much-needed brownie points.

Use open-ended questions and statements to encourage the aggrieved to disclose his feelings, worries and concerns. For example:

• This must be difficult for you; it certainly is for me.

• I can see that you are angry, and I guess I would be too in this situation, though I might not try to stomp on your neck.

• You seem frightened to me. Are you frightened? Are you really frightened? You want me to give you something to be frightened about?

• Hey, how about those Knicks?

When The Aggrieved Party Is A Patient

When bad news is due to a medical condition, most people will have some idea what their symptoms mean. Others may have received some previous information; it may even have been about you. If this is the case, and the possibility exists that there is damaging photographic evidence, it is important to establish exactly what the patient knows or suspects before dispensing any helpful advice.

Questions might include:

• How would you describe me to a sketch artist?

• Ever wonder what you’d look like on the side of a milk carton?

• You wouldn’t happen to know a good lawyer, would you?

• So, how about those Knicks?

Occasionally the recipient of bad news will fall silent and seem completely unprepared or unable to respond. It may be helpful here to acknowledge his silence with a response like, “Say something, for crying out loud!” Give the patient some time before speaking (or yelling) again, and if he still does not respond, offer to meet him again at Le Cirque or Peter Luger’s Steak House, with the provision that he pick up the check.

It is important to give information at the patient’s pace; this may mean that he will not receive all the information at the same time. He is more likely to accurately absorb the message if it is given in manageable chunks. You will know when the patient has heard enough when he either changes the subject or falls asleep. He may ask you not to go on, giving reasons such as “I don’t understand all this,” or “All I’m interested in is the money; read the will.”

Only give information to someone other than the patient when:

a) the patient cannot pay,


b) the patient can pay but needs a translator.

If the bad news is about diagnosis and treatment, there is generally time to prepare in advance. Further questions from the patient, however, may contain the propensity for more bad news, for which you have had no time to prepare. In such a situation where you do not know the answer, make it up, or offer to refer the question to someone more appropriate, preferably someone more adept at lying.

Addressing The Future

Lastly, when you are sure that the bad news has been absorbed and first reactions have been addressed, it is important to consider the future.

If the bad news has been broken in public, it is important that neither of you be standing near a major body of water, as some aggrieved who consider shedding this mortal coil often look to take a buddy with them. If the aggrieved appears very distressed, it could help for you to run, as being chased is likely to call the attention of the proper authorities to your plight.

Remember, if the aggrieved is also a patient, he may ask questions about treatment, prognosis and other aspects of his future. If the diagnosis is terminal, this could mean more bad news, especially for you. Offer him inappropriate reassurance in order to maintain hope, both his and yours. Encourage him to set unrealistic goals for the future, but avoid expressions such as “What you need to do is…” and instead, offer to finish his dessert for him.

Finally, you may want to address specific issues with the aggrieved, such as not extending his cellphone contract. Remember, what’s left of his future is in your hands.


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