Giving bad news

It’s tough having to give someone bad news, but there are three essential skills that can help.


I have had the great pleasure this past week of producing a new DVD on Chlamydia for teenagers. It’s been a lot of fun filming drama scenes and doing vox pop interviews with 30 young people.


But in amongst it all there is a tough part of the job, and that is giving bad news: telling an actor who has diligently tried out for a part that they have not been selected. You are creating disappointment for someone. Of course it’s not anywhere near as bad as terminating employment or demoting someone.


There are three essential skills when giving any bad news sensitively and effectively.


Get to the point


When giving bad news many people have trouble getting to the point quickly. This may manifest in delaying giving feedback or advice that is going to be upsetting or disappointing, by putting off making a call or arranging a meeting to talk through the change or lack of success. They may procrastinate because they are anxious or uncomfortable about having to deal with the emotional reaction that will usually follow, or the “anticipated” reaction. The result is that the other person senses this discomfort and the overall level of anxiety and anger increases.


So it’s very important to get to the point quickly and effectively. Be direct and give the information upfront, then have the time to deal with the reactions that may follow.


Deal with reactions


Invariably bad news equates to announcing some kind of loss: loss of a duty, loss of a job, lack of success at an interview. So when giving bad news you need to anticipate these reactions and have some kind of plan to deal with them.


For an actor trying out for a role – if they did not really expect to get the part they will be disappointed. Someone with high expectations, a feeling that they were the “chosen” one, will probably react badly. For someone losing their job there will be a strong reaction.


The reactions vary and sometimes are concealed. Often a person can be shocked or upset, bewildered and disoriented. This is a normal reaction. The best thing to do is to express understanding and empathy for the emotional reaction.


Sometimes the reaction can be anger, and this may turn into personal abuse directed towards the person giving the bad news. A common mistake managers fall into is they get defensive, and may even get into an argument. So you need to rise above it and ignore it.


Grief and tears are also a common reaction to bad news. If someone is crying show empathy and understanding and tell them it is a natural reaction.


Focus on positives


When giving bad news, try to focus on the positives. If there is a change that is unsettling try to outline the benefits. If a person is leaving, offer to help them in some way. If they have tried out for an audition, give them feedback on what they did that will help them do better next time and offer them encouragement. Make suggestions for options if you can.


We just need to remember that when we have to be hard and give bad news, we don’t also have to be cold and immune.




Psychologist Eve Ash is managing director of Seven Dimensions and producer of the Ash.Quarry Productions video Giving Bad News (People Skills series).


To watch the video, Giving Bad News, click here.

To read more Eve Ash blogs, click here.


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