On Delivering Bad News

I deliver bad news today. I knew in early December that I needed to do it. Yet, I waited another two months before communicating with the two recipients.

I worried about it. I lost sleep over it, even cried over it because I understood it could cost me some friendships.

Finally, I delivered it in a cowardly fashion: I sent an email.

Three hours later, I listened to a voicemail reply. It was a voicemail because I couldn’t muster the courage to pick up the phone and have a conversation right then and there. 

The voicemail was kinder than I expected, but listening to it still felt like torture, my stomach in a knot of relief and guilt. It might have been easier to get yelled at. I was a mess.

Delivering bad news is an artform of sorts. It’s both a dreaded activity and a necessary one.


Delivering bad news also serves as a form of liberation. It releases us of the tension that builds up when we know we need to make someone feel emotions they don’t want to feel and did not expect to have to deal with either immediately, or maybe ever:

  • Disappointment
  • Betrayal
  • Hatred
  • Sadness
  • Violated
  • Abused
  • Taken for granted
  • Jealousy
  • Contempt
  • Confusion
  • Distressed

We know we need to be the messenger from time to time but we sometimes refuse to pull or delay pulling the trigger. We’re reticent to make it real for the other person by telling them what we already know to be true.

And that’s particularly bad behaviour, for us and for the recipient.

For the recipient, delaying the bad news eats away at precious time they could be using to deal with their new reality. It can also lead them to have to deal with a more significant situation the longer we delay the communication.

For us, delaying eats at us inside, but that discomfort is usually not as intolerable as what we imagine we’ll feel when we finally do the inevitable.

So why do we delay sharing bad news?


We hold on to what the other person has a right to hear because we find it inconvenient to share. We decide on the reasoning and we stick to this justification:

  • It’s not the right time.
  • She has too much on her plate right now.
  • Maybe he doesn’t have to know.
  • Maybe, with a little time, I can turn this around.
  • Maybe I’ll feel differently in the future. Maybe I’ll change my mind. (My recent excuse.)
  • I’m keeping this from her because I’m protecting her.
  • I’ll only share what he has to know. The rest is too messy.

It’s also about control. Once we’ve delivered the bad news, we’re no longer controlling the narrative. The other person has the power to start making choices and taking action based on the new-to-them information. 

The cat’s out of the bag and we may not like the repercussions.

Of course, despite our best efforts at avoidance, more often than not, bad news finds its way to the recipient. It’s good for our selfish selves to consider that fact if we’re not ready to communicate it for the right reasons because maybe, just maybe, imagining that messy possibility will prompt us to act appropriately.

Delivering bad news, as inconvenient as it is, is about doing the right thing for—hopefully—the right reasons.

As messy as it is, it does make life better in the long run because our conscience is clear and those we care about are respected and, more importantly, feel respected.

I sit here relieved I finally did the right thing and feeling ashamed that I didn’t communicate sooner what I knew deep down to be true.

How are you about communicating bad news? Do you avoid it? Do you get yourself to do it sooner than later?

Image credit/copyright: Ambro / freedigitalphotos.net

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