How to deliver bad news

Posted on April 9, 2018

Have you ever been on the receiving end of bad news? How was it delivered? Gently? Or suddenly, maybe even brutally, with no preparation?

I remember a time when my teenage daughter woke up with a blinding headache and a raging fever. I rushed her to the hospital, where the intake nurse assured me that it was a 24-hour virus.

Then the doctor arrived. He said to me abruptly, “We think your daughter might have meningitis. We’ll have to do a spinal tap.” Shocked, I made a nervous noise that sounded like a laugh. Deciding I was taking things too lightly, he added, “You know, meningitis can be fatal.” After that, they had to put me on a stretcher!

Unfortunately, that doctor didn’t know that there’s an art to delivering bad news. It’s important to prepare your listener or reader for the bad news by leading up to it carefully.

Do you have bad news to deliver? To avoid upsetting your clients more than necessary (or even driving them away), try this simple 4-part plan.

1. Use a neutral opening

Never start off with the bad news. Instead, begin with a neutral statement, one that isn’t negative but isn’t too positive, either. Don’t thank your reader for contacting you; you don’t want to sound so friendly that the person thinks good news is coming!

The best approach is to state a fact (other than the bad news):

We have received your email telling us that you did not get the December issue of our magazine.

2. Give an explanation

Don’t state the bad news just yet! Next, explain why you can’t do what the client wants. The idea is to lead up logically to the bad news. After reading your explanation, your reader should be expecting bad news:

Our records show that we learned of your address change on November 30, after we had mailed out the December issue. Since that issue was especially popular, it sold out completely, and we have no stock left.

3. State the bad news

Now that you’ve prepared your reader, you can deliver the bad news. Begin with a word or a phrase like “As a result” or “For that reason,” to show how the bad news is a logical outcome of the explanation:

For that reason, we are not able to replace your December issue.

4. End with a goodwill close

Do your best to end on a positive note and leave your reader with a good impression, in spite of the bad news. You can do this by ending with a close that is friendly and helpful.

Even though you couldn’t do what your reader wanted, see if you can offer something else in exchange:

However, to make up for your disappointment, we will be happy to extend your subscription an extra two months. We hope you will enjoy your extra issues.

If you follow this simple 4-part plan, you’ll be able to deliver bad news and still keep your client’s business!

What approach have you used in the past to deliver bad news? Did it work, or did it backfire? Do you think this method will help you? Let us know in the comments below!


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Sheila Ethier

Sheila Ethier

Sheila Ethier has taught English and translation at the post-secondary level and has many years’ experience in translation. She enjoys creating content for the Portal.


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Submitted by Hamid Pazhwak on April 10, 2018, at 11:35

Honesty is always the best policy.
The steps provided make it easy to implement.
Thanks for this technique.

Submitted by Sandra Hampton on June 26, 2018, at 8:46

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and it serves as a reminder that we can use every day in both our professional and personal lives. Merci beaucoup d'avoir partagé votre histoire touchante!

Submitted by s.prasanth on May 21, 2022, at 10:18

Your blog is excellent. This is one of the awesome blog in which I have studied.
One doubt: In the topic of ( Use a neutral opening ) In this passage you say to open with good news. the opening makes him first happy But after saying the bad news it makes him more sad in my Opinion.

Submitted by SOWMIYA. R on May 28, 2022, at 1:46

Hi sheila,
Thanks for this wonderful blog.
"Written or verbal , which will be more effective in conveying bad news to persuade the people in an organization ?"

Submitted by Sheila Ethier on November 10, 2022, at 11:57

Thank you for your comment! Here is an explanation that I hope will be helpful.
The opening in a bad news letter is called a “neutral” opening because it’s neither positive nor negative. We don’t want to begin with the bad news, but it’s also very important not to begin with too positive an opening. We have to avoid saying anything that makes the reader expect good news. If we follow the neutral opening with a logical explanation and then the bad news statement, we lead up to the bad news gradually. The reader can see it coming and is much better prepared to receive it. I hope this explanation clears up any confusion. :)

Submitted by Sheila Ethier on November 10, 2022, at 11:58

Thank you for commenting! Bad news can be delivered orally as well as in writing, and both methods can be equally effective. It is context that determines the choice of delivery method. Within an organization, a written announcement to all employees might be delivered in an email. A message to an individual colleague is probably better delivered orally. It might also be necessary to deliver bad news orally at a meeting with a group of colleagues, large or small. You can handle any of these situations effectively if you remember to use the four-step approach outlined in the post. :)

Submitted by Rachel on September 23, 2023, at 5:19

Delivering bad news is never easy, but these tips are invaluable for maintaining empathy and clarity. Effective communication is key, and this article provides a great roadmap for handling difficult conversations. Thanks for sharing.

Submitted by Sheila Ethier on October 3, 2023, at 15:42

Thanks, Rachel! Glad you liked the post and found it helpful!