How To Tell Someone Something Difficult

I wish you would pass this on, by all means, let someone else do it. But wait, who will? Nobody wants to take the driver’s seat when it comes to sharing bad news. In fact, only brave people do. Most people take the back seat and watch from afar. I have been in meetings where we deliberated for hours the person who will pass on the news yet spent a shorter time making the decision. Often, the task is left to the one person who can’t avoid, mostly the leader.

When you are tasked with telling someone something difficult. Prepare the person mentally by using an opener. This could be an external example, a reminder of a previous event, or a possible cause of action. Be empathetic and give the person room to express themselves. An appreciation message or a message of sympathy can also serve the purpose. The worst mistake would be to shift the blame, just own the message.

Some people choose to dive right in. “You are fired!” “Your dad is dead. “ What a cruel way of dealing with difficult information? At least be sympathetic and tactful. Churchill Winston S once said, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” Being sympathetic means using statements such as, “I’m sorry I have some tough news for you” or “I hope this doesn’t ruin your day but I need to share something unsettling.

5 Ways of Telling Someone Something Difficult

1.    Start on a positive note

A positive message like appreciating the person’s appearance or character is a good way to start a difficult conversation regardless of the message.

Examples include;

Thank you so much for your thoughtful gift but I am sorry, I have to break our engagement

You look excellent but unfortunately I have another date

You aced that interview it’s just that the competition was too high.”  

This method makes the conversation easier; it also saves you from the awkward moments that result from sharing difficult information. It makes it easier for the news recipient to respond gracefully.

2.    Remind them of a past event

Find a past event that brought the same kind of feeling. If you want to set a solemn mood, few things prepare the atmosphere like re-living a similar event. Take for instance there’s a close family member who has died and you have been entrusted to deliver the news.

Usually, people have a premonition but you can make the experience more bearable by reminding them of the death of another family member. Here is an example. “When mom died, it felt like the world had come to an end. I remember sitting still for hours and just reminiscing our time together. I thought I will never heal, I had never felt such pain before.” After this, introduce the news as if in passing. You can say, “Today is the second hardest day after that. I just learned dad was involved in a fatal accident.”

When you use such an opener, you set the person in deep thought, this minimizes the initial shock. As they try to relive the moment, they find themselves in a daze and the news becomes easier to handle.

3.    Suggest possible cause of action ahead of time

“I need you to take charge, something has come up, and you will be told all about it later today.” Those are the words my boss used to prepare me for an upcoming reshuffle necessitated by fraud. “You will lead all the branch meetings, organize for training, send required management reports, and attend managerial meetings.”

I sat back, listened, and took note of the new tasks and continued with my usual tasks. In the evening just while I was about to leave for the day, I was invited for a teleconference. All the details were released to me. I felt overwhelmed but not nearly as much as I would have if the teleconference preceded the opener (cause of action set by my boss).

There are two advantages to this, you get to leverage the information given prior, and you also lessen the impact of the difficult news.

4.    Use external examples

We are currently experiencing an economic slump. Multiple companies are toning down their expenses and have put stringent measures to cut down on expenses. If you plan to apply measures that will utterly affect your staff, research on what other companies are doing. List a few companies and the measures they have taken plus the results.

When you summon your staff to break the news, start with the statistics you have collected. Open a discussion on what they think about those examples. Let them share possible solutions for your company. While concluding the meeting, share the leadership’s decision in detail. Open up the floor for reactions. This helps to manage the impact of the message. Close the meeting with reassurance to put their best interest at heart.

Let’s use another example, assuming you are a doctor and your patient’s results just came out negative, for instance, they have cancer. You want to break the news to such a patient cautiously. Get the statistics, most probably positive statistics. Ask them if they know people who have fully recovered from cancer. Listen to their story then share your statistics. For example, “did you know that out of every 10 people who test positive for cancer, 8 people recover fully?” They will probably get surprised and sigh with relief. In that instance, you can share the news shrewdly and say, “You will be part of the eight.”

Of course, they will be affected but not as immensely as they would have been if you did not set the stage. Remember; always end your message with reassurance.

In conclusion

Ease your way into the conversation when delivering difficult information. Be empathetic and give the person room to express themselves. A difficult message doesn’t have to leave one devastated. It can be also reassuring. If you are in a position to, engage the person on the way forward to help them regain focus.

How to Tell Someone Bad News


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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