Delivering Bad News

It's a hard situation to be in, but sometimes a bad news must be given to someone. If you are the person who has to do it, a few considerations may help in delivering the news:

  1. Involvement: Have you been involved with the news? For example, are you firing the person because you decided to, or is the news about something happening to a loved one, completely out of your hand?
  2. Urgency: Should the news be delivered right now? In the firing example, you probably have made a decision many days before they have to hear it. That may not be the case in the loved one example.

The medical field deals with bad news a lot and they have researched around it. Though mostly for when the situation is out of the medical team's hand. They haven't caused the cancer, but they report it.

For when there is urgency to conveying the bad news, internet forums talk about the STARS method, used by nurses:

  1. Sorry
  2. Tell me about it
  3. Anything I can do for you?
  4. Any relatives you want me to tell this to?
  5. Sorry

The above would apply to a loss. When there is more time to convey the bad news, for example telling a patient about a disease, the SPIKES method (opens new window) says:

  1. Set UP: Proper research, proper timing, and providing a private space.
  2. Assessing Perception: Understanding what the person knows or guesses.
  3. Obtaining Invitation: Asking how much the person wants to know.
  4. Giving Knowledge: Balance the conversation with facts. If there are uplifting possibilities, share them. If the recipient needs to understand the seriousness of something repeat or emphasize its importance.
  5. Addressing Emotions: Give them time and the space to express themselves. Don't argue.
  6. Strategy and Summary: Plan the next steps.

Many of these may not apply to when the bad news is coming out of certain intention. For example, when firing someone, you can't just ask "how much do you want to know?" Though the underlying theme of compassion must still be there. The entrepreneurship world deals with such non-urgent but involved bad news a lot. In the example of firing someone:

  • Provide foresight: If they are causing an issue, a warning is warranted as the basic professional behavior. If it's just things not working out (not enough funds, traction, etc.) give heads-up about the issues well in advance.
  • Meet people where they are at: Ask them about their plans, what do they think about the future. I have been surprised to hear people having the same perspective as me.
  • Humanize the conversation: They are human and you are human. Tell them how much you like working with them. Be ready to give a warm response to "I feel I have let you down". That took me off-guard the first time.
  • Frame the future: Talk about how you can continue hearing about each other. Perhaps there are possible advisor/consultant relationships you can maintain. Offer a recommendation and help for their job search.

Keep these in mind and hopefully the conversation will go better than expected. Good luck!