Delivering bad news is never easy, but it’s an inevitable part of leadership. How you handle layoffs, failed projects, or less-than-positive performance reviews can impact your team’s morale, trust, and productivity.

The good news? You can deliver bad news with empathy and respect, minimizing its negative impact and encouraging resilience and collaboration. Here are some key strategies and best practices for leaders to communicate difficult news effectively.

The Importance of Empathy in Delivering Bad News

Being empathic means understanding and sharing another’s feelings. Put another way, it’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Because of this, empathy is essential when conveying bad news:

  • Builds trust. When you show your team that you value their individuality, you demonstrate how much you care about how your message will be received. As a result, this builds trust between you and your employees and strengthens your relationship.
  • Reduces negativity. Empathy can soften bad news, resulting in a more supportive environment. The likelihood that people will react defensively or become disengaged is lower when they feel heard and understood.
  • Fosters collaboration. Acknowledging and expressing your commitment to working through challenges fosters collaboration and problem-solving. In the long run, this can result in more positive outcomes.

Key Strategies for Delivering Bad News Effectively

To deliver bad news effectively, here are some key strategies:

Preparation is key.

When you are prepared, you will appear more confident and empathetic. Therefore, ensure that you collect all the needed information in advance. In addition, it may be a good idea to rehearse your speech beforehand to provide clarity, empathy, and confidence.

Also, be prepared for a variety of reactions. Ultimately, everyone processes information differently. Some need time to process, and some seek answers immediately. Make sure you are flexible and adapt your approach as necessary.

Choose the right setting and time.

Deliver the news in a distraction-free environment so that you can have an uninterrupted conversation. By doing so, you demonstrate respect for the individual and the gravity of the situation.

Further, unwanted information should only be delivered when you have all the facts — not before or afterward. When we deliver news before we know everything, it causes fear and anxiety. If the release occurs too late after the facts have been established, it may raise suspicion.

In addition, avoid giving bad news before deadlines, holidays, or Fridays. When choosing a time for your presentation, consider your team’s emotional state and pick a time when they are likely to be receptive.

Don’t lose sight of the “why” and the “what next.”

Despite the bad news, people want context. Explain the reasoning behind the decision, even if it is challenging.

Simply put, get straight to the point. You shouldn’t sugarcoat the news or soften the blow. Describe the situation as honestly and clearly as possible.

It is equally important to provide information about what will happen next. Give an overview of any immediate action, available support systems, and the future.

At the same time, you want to provide all the relevant information without overwhelming him or her. You should also avoid making promises you will not be able to fulfill.

Take off the “veil of ignorance.”

Chances are, if you break bad news, it will be good for you, writes Scott Hitchin, Chief Strategy Officer Interact Software in Forbes. For example, you aren’t getting laid off. As a result, you might overlook other perspectives.

The philosopher John Rawls called this a “veil of ignorance,” he adds. “When breaking bad news, remove the veil and write or speak as if you don’t know which side of the divide you will be on. This ensures more empathetic thinking.”

Tailor your approach.

Consider your audience’s background, personality, and relationship with you when choosing your communication style. To make this easier for you, here are some tips:

  • Use clear and concise language. When delivering hard news, avoid jargon and terms that are mainly used in management circles. Sometimes, these can be misinterpreted, raising suspicion and resentment among those affected.
  • Maintain eye contact and use nonverbal cues that convey empathy. Doing so demonstrates to the other party that you are present and engaged during the conversation.
  • Be mindful of your tone of voice. Avoid appearing emotional or dismissive by using a calm, respectful tone.
  • Keep your focus on the news, not how hard it is to say. When you reference yourself, you turn empathy for the staff into sympathy for the leader. Rather than having your team support you, it’s your job to help and support them.
  • Acknowledge the impact. Regardless of how painful the news may be, express your understanding and acknowledge the impact it may have. You can make a difference by saying something like, “I know this is disappointing news” or “I understand this is difficult news to hear.”
  • Be patient. Give the person time to process the information and ask questions. In other words, it is important not to rush the conversation.

Offer support.

Be there for the person to offer support during this difficult time. You might do this by providing resources, emotional support, or just being available to listen if needed.

Reframe feedback.

In HBR, Jean-François Manzoni, President of IMD and Nestlé Chaired Professor of Leadership and Organizational Development, states that people tend to accept feedback more readily when they believe:

  • In addition to being reliable, the person providing the feedback has good intentions toward the recipient.
  • As part of the feedback development process, all relevant information is collected; the person giving feedback can explain matters; the subordinate’s opinions are considered; and criticism is delivered consistently using consistent standards.
  • A fair feedback communication process is in place. This means that the person providing feedback respects the subordinate’s ideas, listens to them carefully, and supports them despite their disagreements.

This short list clearly shows that restrictive framing can negatively impact a feedback discussion: Narrow framing implies unjust feedback development, Manzoni adds. Moreover, a boss who lives within a binary and frozen frame appears biased, closed-minded, and unsupportive, ensuring that the feedback is not communicated fairly to the subordinate.

Be transparent.

You shouldn’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. Describe what you know and let the person know when you will have more information.

It is important to maintain transparency to build trust and manage expectations.

Focus on the future.

You should acknowledge the challenges while also expressing your commitment to moving forward and finding a solution. This can create hope and optimism.

Also, once you have delivered the news, check in with the person and offer any additional support they may need. This will demonstrate your genuine concern for their well-being.

Final Words of Advice

As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.”

A leader never relishes delivering bad news. It is unpleasant and anxiety-provoking and can challenge relationships with teams, clients, or stakeholders. The reality is, though, that bad news is inevitable.

In the end, it’s all about how you handle the situation. This defines who you are and what you stand for as a leader.

You must lead with empathy to navigate difficult conversations and build strong relationships with your team. As you follow the strategies above, you will be on your way to delivering bad news effectively and achieving trust and collaboration after challenging situations.


What is the best way to deliver bad news in different situations?

  • Providing bad news one-on-one. Make sure you choose a private, quiet, and uninterrupted place. In addition, provide personalized support and practice active listening.
  • Informing a group of bad news. Don’t be surprised if you get different reactions. Be sure to tailor your communication to the group’s needs and concerns. Furthermore, be open to diverse viewpoints and emotions.
  • Virtually delivering bad news. Ensure the connection is stable, and visibility is clear. Despite limited non-verbal cues, emphasize empathy and clarity through your tone and body language.

How can I stay calm and composed when delivering bad news?

  • Practice makes perfect. To manage your emotions, practice your message beforehand.
  • Engage in calming techniques. Use calming techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness, visualization, or progressive muscle relaxation to calm your nerves.
  • Be empathetic. Demonstrate genuine concern for the situation by acknowledging the difficulty.

How can I show empathy while delivering bad news?

  • Validate feelings. Accept people’s emotions and let them know that they are valid.
  • Use “I” statements. You can use “I” messages to express your concerns, feelings, and needs without blaming others or sounding threatening.
  • Be present and available. Openly answer questions and offer support.

What should I avoid when delivering bad news?

  • Minimizing the impact. It is important not to downplay the severity of the situation.
  • Offering false hope. Identify challenges honestly and avoid making unrealistic promises.
  • Being defensive or dismissive. Take the time to listen to concerns and address them respectfully.

What can I do to support people after delivering bad news?

Provide resources and support systems, and acknowledge their emotional well-being when they have questions or concerns.

Image Credit: Karolina Grabowska; Pexels