When and How to Give Someone Bad News

This is one of those things that we all have to do from time to time and it literally never gets easier. It might be telling a friend a spouse is cheating (there’s a whole section on that), a leak in a house you’re watching or reporting on a child’s poor behaviour, there is a right was to do this. It should go without saying try not to enjoy it but try not to like the process. Actually if you think that if you might enjoy it, get someone else to do it! We had an occasion to tell a customer some really, really bad, like $100 000 bad news this winter and we struggled with it. Plus a lot of the lessons in here apply to dealing with issues in your relationship like when certain things just have to be said. So what should you consider before you tell someone bad news and how should you do it?


Do you really have to tell them? Can they act on it?

My mom and dad had this thing about telling each other stuff when one was travelling unless they could do something about it at a distance or should hop on a plane don’t tell. It’s kinda cold right? But really if the person can’t do anything about it do you have to tell them? Sometimes yes and sometimes no but it’s a good place to start. If they are going to find out about it eventually and there is nothing they can do in the meantime to make it better maybe not. So this might be a case where a tree has fallen on someone’s deck crushing all their furniture while you’re taking care of their house. Take some pictures, but if there is no chance of more damage and the insurance company doesn’t need to be called right away it’s probably not worth ruining someone’s vacation over. Say someone’s house is on fire while they are just out to dinner and the fire department is on site you don’t really need to call them, chances are someone already has and if not there’s nothing they can do about it in the meantime. Human decency might dictate otherwise but you’re just putting them at risk on the drive home.

On the other side of things you might have to tell someone bad news for a whole lot less of a reason. If you see the police at their house for no apparent reason it’s probably best to give them a quick heads up and not ask any follow up questions. If their property is damaged and immediate action needs to be taken to mitigate the loss while they are on vacation, you need to call them and tell them to call the insurance company.

Avoid cliche’s distill the details, do it fast, give next steps

If you’ve decided to tell avoid cliches we hear all the time things like, “I have good news and bad news.” Or “If something happened today at school would you want to know?” This just fills time and lessens your guilt about telling them. Also avoid humour to lighten the mood, this is serious stuff and it’s a time to be serious. Keep to the headlines and make sure they’re ready to heat it. Tell them straight up you have some bad news and let them get to a place where they can engage with you first. That means away from other people and perhaps pulling over. If they are going to need a pen make sure they have one before you start. Then keep to the major details. If a tree has fallen on their house don’t start by describing the storm, the wind or the tree just tell them the major points, what part of the house how deep does it go and and an overall idea of how bad the damage is, you’ll need a new roof vs the whole side of the house is flattened.

The person is understandably going to be in shock and might not be in a position to respond well. You should have obviously thought long and hard about actually telling them. Before making the call think about what they need to do next. Like you need to call your insurance company right away, you need to get in touch with the school or in more extreme cases you need to come home. Sometimes the first call needs to be to someone else first. In cases that require police, fire or and ambulance your first call should be to 911.


Try, try, try not to do it by text or email

No matter how inconvenient or potentially costly it is to talk to a person try to give bad news verbally and if at all possible in person. If you don’t think it warrants a $20 overseas phone call maybe you don’t need to tell them at all. The thing is sending it via email or text means you have not control or way of knowing how and when they will receive it. They might open it after a few too many, a fight with their partner, in front of their boss or while doing something dangerous like driving. All of these situations are obviously less than ideal and that’s why a phone call or meeting is in order. We regularly have to tell people there are hidden problems with a renovation that will cost more or make part of the plan impossible. We like to show them onsite because then they can see it with their own eyes and we can calm them down and walk then through the options. Same thing with phone calls you have some sense of the timing the message will be received in and an opportunity to walk them through next steps and maybe calm them down. If you regularly correspond by text or email tell them to give you a call you’ll be available any time, they’ll get the message.

If you tell be prepared to help

No matter the situation if you are prepared to tell them the bad news you should be prepared to help out. This is also a good litmus test to should you tell in the first place. If you’re not close enough or prepared to help them out after the fact maybe you shouldn’t tell them at all. If you’re telling a fellow mom about their child’s antisocial behaviour you might offer up a few playdates at your house. If you’re telling a traveling neighbour about damage to their home you should be prepared to go in and grab their insurance documents or call the company if they can’t. If there is nothing practical you can really do you should be prepared to be a shoulder to cry on for them and follow up a few times to see if they need it.

Help a fella out, Actually these were both mine by my partner’s son helped me get the jeep going!

When and how to tell on a cheating partner

There’s a pretty good chance that this is why you’re here specifically or am I just jaded? This is a really, REALLY hard one! I could make a good case for always and for never but it is most definitely always complicated. Here are the things you have to weigh out and there’s a lot to consider. Ultimately there is a good chance that you might loose the friendship no matter how close it is. We’ll talk about why at the end of this section but here is what you need to think about.

One is what sort of proof do you have did you just see something, do you have a picture, could that picture be dismissed somehow. I do think that if you see something as gruesome as it is you should snap a pic, you can always delete it later. Most people will freak out and believe it whole heartedly right away and some of those people will also find a way to dismiss it later maybe after talking to their partner. So if someone told you they were talking to someone else and they say something either shut up or get that original person to talk to your friend. I’ve known people who let coming home with condoms at dawn (a joke from friends at a party), pictures of a passionate kiss (it was a peck and a server bumped into them) and explicated texts (I was trying to see if you trusted me and you don’t) get explained away. Two out of the three were from the same couple, they got married after all that. Then he cheated on her at their mutual work while she was seven months pregnant and shortly after they got divorced. You might be surprised what people can ignore. Due to my frank and insensitive though couched comments that essentially added up to, “how stupid can you be?” (pre-wedding) our friendship didn’t make it.

The next thing to consider is your friends relationship and personality to the best of your knowledge. You might want to time your telling to take certain things into account. If your friend has a volatile relationship and they have bad fights you might want to capitalize on a time when they are going to be apart. You might also want to take your friend away to tell them. Either for the night or a couple of towns over for a long lunch and walk. If they’ve been through this a whole lot of times and stayed together you might consider just keeping it to yourself. Of course there are a lot more factors to consider but you know your friend best. Take all of the things into consideration when deciding how to tell them and if you want to at all. Be aware that not telling is also a risk if it all comes out down the line and chances are it will, the fact that you knew might very well be just as hurtful as telling in the first place. Also sitting on the information a while before telling them is going to sting too. See there are not right answers! I’ve never done it but the you tell her yourself or I will option seems like it has it’s pluses.

Though I have no personal experience with it beyond the news the end of a relationship can be a very dangerous time particularly for women. Over half of murdered women are killed by their partners and when a couple is separating is the most dangerous time. If you decide to tell and you think it’s appropriate you might want to help your friend make a separation plan. That is something I helped a friend with once but look to experts and not to me for help with that. Dr. Phil’s wife Robin McGraw actually has been recognized by congress for her work in this effort so her website might be a good place to start. Make sure to check out the aspire news app!

Consider your own personality and your own friendship with the person. Now you might think I’m going to say unless you’re super tight BFF’s don’t tell but I’m going to say the opposite. Perhaps the perfect person to tell someone this news is a not so close friend on the periphery who you don’t have a complicated relationship with. It’s not uncommon that the relationship between the teller and and tellee will peter out. That might seem harsh to plan for that but your person is going to need her very best friends for the next little while. I’ve lost two really good friends neither of which I told over husbands cheating drama. If you get pulled into it or step into it like I did, you might not have the person at the end. I can’t say why this happens for sure but I have a couple of ideas. One is shame and embarrassment, whether they stay or leave the embarrassment might colour your friendship from then on. Another is that the person is going to potentially go on to build a new life from that they had before. Either with new people because they left or closer to home since they are focusing inward if they stay. I would say the fact that you might loose your friend isn’t really a great reason to make the tell/no tell choice. If you decide the right thing to do is tell because you love your friend then you’ll make the right choice for them regardless of the outcome.

So if you have bad news to break I hope I’ve helped you. People don’t always understand that it’s a hard thing to do that causes a lot of stress and keeps you up at night. Have you ever messed up the process? What is the hardest news you’ve ever had to give? And have you ever lost a friend because of it?


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