Breaking Bad News


Everybody has been given bad news and has had to share bad news. Nobody breaks bad news well, and for that they should probably be forgiven—being “the bearer” is no easy task. However, there is one approach that absolutely drives me insane and which I would like to stop. Please, don’t bury the lede. It never works.

There is normative communication behavior for acquaintances at any level of intimacy, and that line of scrimmage is set very early. Shortly after meeting somebody, timing, spacing, subject matter and mode of communication form the natural rhythm of a relationship, the pulse from which any deviation is notable. These deviations allow insight into the motivations of your acquaintance.

For example, when somebody wishes to push a relationship to a more intimate place, communication often takes place later at night, more frequently and with less of an introduction. “We should talk about this party we both went to/are going to” becomes “this movie made me think of you,” becomes “hi.” You register this change in rhythm and respond accordingly, either meeting the other person at the new line of scrimmage, or signaling your difference in opinion about the nature of the relationship through laconic disinterest. Personally, I like to keep people on their toes by maintaining generally poor communication at all times, regardless of the relationship and my motives, but that’s for another post. The point is, we measure the maturation of relationships through the changes in the rhythm of communication.

In sharing bad news, there is a temptation to wade into it, as one does cold water. First, establish the existence of bad in the universe, then the existence of something newsworthy, then deliver the news. Depending on the person, the wading process can take anywhere from a minute to an entire conversation. It goes something like this:


“Hi, how are you?”

“Meh. Not so good.” Acknowledging that bad exists, attempting to position oneself as in a bad place so as to be in sympathy with the person to receive bad news, rather than to blame for the news.

“Really, what’s up?”

“Long week. You know how it is… swamped at work, boss yelling at me, almost made me cry, parents are jerks, partied too much, argh, you know.” Troubles of the week, exaggerated and in shorthand.

“Sorry to hear it.”

“Yeah, whatever, I’ll be fine.” Unconscious realization of previous hyperbole and how delving into it could prolong the artifice past usefulness and morality—results in minor back-pedaling.


At this point, the “bearer” usually inquires about your well-being, and with a degree of enthusiasm. They are happy to have the onus of conversation on you, granting them time to ready the news without being under the stress of carrying a dialogue from which they are clearly detached.

Inserting myself into this dialogue, I can usually sense anywhere from “Meh” to “swamped at work…” that something is amiss. I continue my part of the conversation only to buy time to guess the nature of the news to come and steel myself for the worst. This is the worst part of the conversation. Everybody is stalling and everybody knows it, but nobody dares to acknowledge it, least they give up their preparation time.

“Cool. Well I have some bad news.”

The transition is always non sequitur. The “bearer” gets up his or her resolve and dives right in, often with much stammering and hand wringing.  The bad news has been delivered.

Now, look back over this hypothetical conversation. Doesn’t it seem unnecessarily stressful? So much positioning and subtext. Now, I’m never one to advocate removing complexity or nuance from conversation (quite the opposite actually), but even reading that is exhausting. Here is what I propose. Put the lede where it should be: right up front. Maybe this is my German side coming out too much, but let’s get some efficiency in here! The sooner bad news is delivered, the sooner I can fix everything. And I’m pretty sure I always can, but that too is for another post…

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