How to Tell Someone Bad News

The problem with bad news is that there is no amount of sugarcoating that can erase the ‘bad’ in the news. Also, the more you delay to tell, the harder it becomes. The bearer of the news is usually equally or more affected than the recipient. This makes it almost impossible to bear the reaction of the recipient. 

If you are the bearer of the news, how do you know you are ready to deliver bad news? How do you prepare the recipient? First, you need to know if you are the right person to share the news.

Before telling someone bad news, compose yourself and ensure the timing is right and you are in a safe place. Make sure you are calm enough and ready to deliver the bad news effectively. Be brief and gentle while sharing. Besides, make sure you have full details to answer the recipient’s questions. Also, be in a position to comfort the recipient if need be. Ensure you don’t leave the person disoriented. Depending on how affected they are, help them find focus or leave them with someone else who can.

You are not the right person to deliver bad news if:

  • You are badly hurt and can hardly compose yourself
  • You are not related to the affected and got to know the news as a ‘by the way’
  • You do not have answers to immediate questions that may arise
  • You don’t have the capacity to comfort the recipient

What if you are nervous?

Are you the only one who can deliver the news? If no, admit you are nervous and you may not be ready for the task. If you are the only one, there are a few things you can do to help with the situation. One, rehearse the message. You can do it in front of a mirror if possible, choose the words keenly and practice them. Once you are ready, summon the person to a secluded place, have them settle down and ask what they know. If they don’t know yet, gently share the message you practiced. Be calm and open to the questions that will follow.

Ensure the timing is right and you are in a safe place

With the exposure we have to social media currently, it’s almost impossible to delay news regardless of how detrimental they are. You may be waiting for the right time, then a careless bystander posts about the same on social media. The effect is almost un-manageable.

I witnessed a family almost crumble after a neighbor posted an ‘RIP’ message on Facebook before the kids learnt of their mother’s death. It’s almost a year later and one of the affected daughters is yet to forgive the news bearer. Timing is extremely essential.

The venue is another crucial decision, the place should be ideal for the recipient to express herself freely. If you are in public and can’t find a room, walk away from the crowd, or get in a car.

Here is how to tell someone bad news

Start with an introductory statement and give the recipient a moment to catch a breath. Examples of introduction statement include;

  • “Have a seat, I have some sad news to share with you”
  • “I need to tell you something unpleasant, please come over”
  • “Are you alone? I have some bad news to tell you”
  • “Have you heard anything? I just received some sad news?”
  • “ I wish I had an easier way to tell you this, but these are terrible news”
  • “I am sorry I have bad news for you”

Here are examples of a simple conversation

“Jane, I’m sorry but I called you here because I have bad news. There was an accident at school and several children are hurt. Johnny is among them.” Jane will quickly interrupt, “what happened and where is Johnny?” To which you will reply, “There was a stampede. Johnny is at the hospital, he was badly injured. I’m sorry.” The good thing with this message is that the delivery is gentler as compared to, for instance, “Jane, there has been a stampede at school and Johnny is badly injured.”

Another example is “Have you heard the news today? I have a sad report; granny didn’t make it out of the surgery room.” Notice how the opener statement prepares the recipient for the news.

What next?

After you have shared the news, give the recipient time to absorb. Some people will just sit silently in shock, others express emotions openly, either cry out loud or sob quietly. Show support by keeping them company as they process the news. If you can hold their hand, offer a rub on the back, an embrace, whatever you can do to make them feel supported, do it.

This is not a good time to offer advice, its best you just listen and acknowledge their pain. Avoid using provocative responses such as “I understand what you feel”, “It’s better this way”, even when it’s the truth, the person may misinterpret it. Instead, use statements such as “I can see the pain in your eyes”; “this is terrible news indeed”.

Other supportive words include questions such as “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “Is there anyone you want me to call?”

Helping the person to move on after telling them bad news

Once the person has settled a little, help them to strategize. Probably they need to spread the news to others, go to the hospital, or call for a family meeting. Assist them to make immediate needful decisions. If possible, accompany them.


If you have to go, ensure you leave the person in good hands, for example, another friend or family member. Also, offer to follow-up on the progress where necessary. At such moments, essentials such as eating, or taking medication may be overtaken by events, follow up and ensure the person does not miss such necessities.

Find out more on how to tell someone something difficult.


Am a graduate sociologist and a regular contributor to national publications such as the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Journal of Applied Social Science and the Annual Review of Sociology.

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