May 172013 2 Responses

How to Deliver Bad News

No one ever told me how to deliver bad news. It’s an odd thought considering my profession. Between a Liberal Arts undergraduate degree and one of the longest Master’s programs there is, I’ve had a variety of classes.

I’ve been taught:

  • how to conjugate Hebrew verbs (not that I remember how or technically even learned how in the first place)
  • how to identify the gospel in 1980’s baseball films
  • couponing (yes, all pastoral ministry professors assume their students will always be poor)
  • sex therapy (no 19 year-old virgin, four years away from being married should be forced to take a class on sex from an eccentric grandmother, I still have nightmares)

Yet no one ever said, “when telling a parent their child has overdosed, say this…” or “when telling someone their Dad has died, don’t say this…”

I was taught how to fight—I once had a class on Southern Baptist polity—but no one ever taught me how to deliver bad news.

The night our pediatrician walked into the delivery room to tell us our daughter was born with Down syndrome is a night frozen in my memory. I can still remember many of the words he said. It was only in the months after that night in which I realized how skillfully he delivered the news. Since then, I’ve heard horror stories of doctors delivering the same news with a harsh, coldness devoid of any compassion. Our doctor told his story with great skill, compassion, and hope. He helped set the course for how we would parent—neither in denial nor despair.

There is no secret formula to delivering bad news, but there are some basic guidelines one can follow:

Start slow. We slow down to say important things. It improves comprehension. Difficult conversations should start slowly in order to ensure you have the person’s undivided attention. Calling the person by name, looking them in the eye, and saying, “I have something difficult to tell you” is a good way to eliminate confusion. The object is not to say what needs to be said, it is to help the person hear and understand what has happened. Starting slowly sets the context for the information that is delivered.

Tell the truth. Don’t water it down. Don’t tell a minor part first and then get to the big information. Don’t shade it or downplay it. Tell the truth in the most simple, straightforward way possible.

Be brief. Bad news is difficult to process. The less words necessary the better. Too many words can lead to confusion, the person may not understand what they are being told. With a slow start which leads to one clear sentence about what has happened, a person is more likely to comprehend what they are being told.

Allow for silence. One of the most common mistakes I see people make is not allowing a person to process the information given. After bad news is delivered, a person’s mind begins to race. They are trying to comprehend what they have been told. This takes time. Allowing them the silence to process the information is vital. Often, after delivering bad news, I will not say anything until the other person speaks first.

Answer what is asked. Questions are natural. Rarely will you be able to answer everything the person is asking. Yet hearing their question, validating it, and answer what you can answer can be helpful to the person as they try to understand the news. Don’t forget the previous guideline—tell the truth. If you don’t know an answer to something, tell them you do not know. It is tempting to lie, but it is never useful.

Be prepared to have the conversation again. Shocking news takes time to understand and it is not unusual for a person to require a second or third conversation to rehash some of the things which were said. Re-telling what information you know can be useful to the person. Reminding them what you have said by using the exact same language again can assist their processing of the information.

Some professions deliver bad news on a daily basis, others might only have to do so in the rarest of circumstances, yet nearly everyone will have to deliver bad news at some point in their lives. Having a basic framework to use in telling the story can be helpful. There is no perfect way to deliver bad news, but some ways are clearly better than others.


2 Responses to How to Deliver Bad News

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