Two Key Communication Tips When The News Is Bad

Last week was a difficult one. Both my parents have Parkinson’s disease and I went with them to their doctor’s appointment. One of the primary reasons for my attendance was because the doctor had to deliver the news that my dad could no longer drive.

bad news newspaper

My mom had voluntarily given up driving about a year ago, but for my dad, this is the last bit of independence he had left and he was pissed off! I’ve never really seen my dad that angry. In his own words, he’s “mad at the world” and “we might as well just go ahead and call the crematorium.”

While the doctor did an amazing job in delivering this bad news…it was the message, not the delivery that rocked his world. I quickly realized there was nothing I could say that would make him feel better about the situation. The best thing I could do was to empathize and just say, “this really sucks.”

While I don’t intend to dwell on the bad news and encourage him to wallow in self-pity, when someone gets bad news it’s best to simply acknowledge that it’s bad and you feel for them.

There will be time to offer words of encouragement and reinforce the good reasons to not get behind the wheel, but if the first words out of my mouth were something like, “You have to do what the doctor says or else you could cause harm to yourself and/or others.” that would come across as patronizing and insensitive to his feelings.

He gets it. He doesn’t need another person repeating the bad news.

He needs to know I understand his perspective and how he’s feeling before he’ll be willing to listen to anything else I have to say.

After the bad news has been delivered, it’s time to understand what’s next. What are the implications of this? I gave it a day before I started talking to my dad about how we will manage transportation needs now that he can no longer drive. While everyone handles receiving bad news differently, for the most part people need to time to process the news before they can engage in a fruitful discussion about what’s next.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with details while absorbing the bad news. Therefore, the second important lesson for me was to keep the messages simple and just in time. If I start to talk about things that will happen next week or next month, my dad will have a hard time tracking with it, become frustrated and just shut down.

While this is a personal situation, I think these same concepts are applicable in the work environment. If someone is losing their job, lost a key client or didn’t get that promotion, it’s helpful for that person to begin to accept the bad news if they know that someone can:

  1. Empathize – acknowledge how the person may be feeling.
  2. Talk about the future/next steps in a simple way and in the right time-frame – not too soon after the bad news is delivered.

While I don’t wish delivering bad news on anyone, the next time you are the messenger I hope you find these two tips useful.

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at