Bearing Bad News

How do you best deliver bad news?

A recent article in Salon describes the difficulty some doctors have in delivering bad news to their patients. No news a lawyer or project manager delivers will ever match what doctors occasionally have to impart, so how hard can it be, right?

Of course, it can still be extremely difficult to deliver unglad tidings.

The opening couplet of Doug’s Divorce by the brilliant band Uncle Bonsai puts the dilemma thus: “Do you like to pull the Band-Aid quick or slow? / Do you like to be the first or last to know?”

Quick or (within reason) slow is a matter of choice, a combination of your style and the recipient’s. Beating around the bush or avoiding the issue altogether, however, is invariably unsuccessful. You can’t couch the news in so many variants of “it depends” that the recipient has trouble getting the message.

The recipient (e.g., the client) is the bellwether of success. If she doesn’t understand the bad news and its main ramifications, you’ve failed in your task.

Consider the doctor delivering a terminal diagnosis to a competent patient. What’s a good outcome (other than a miracle cure)? The patient recognizes his mortality, and is able to consider a range of options for his remaining time on the planet.

That’s the same outcome you strive for when you deliver bad project news. The client recognizes the issue, understands how it’s going to affect her world, and has a range of options and next steps for proceeding beyond the setback.

With that goal in mind, let me offer a few suggestions in delivering bad news without excess pain to the recipient, or to you.

1. Clarify in Your Own Mind

The first step is to be sure that you understand the issues, the ramifications, and the options. If the news is of any import at all, don’t just wing it.

If it is seriously bad news, the legal-world equivalent of a terminal diagnosis that will have a significant personal impact on the recipient, it’s not a bad idea to rehearse or role-play the exchange with a trusted co-worker.

2. Be Straightforward

Be honest with the recipient. Tell them the truth, and do it early in the conversation.

I’m not suggesting that you be painfully blunt or impersonal. You’re part of a continuing relationship that this exchange must strengthen, not damage. Be aware that most clients will see what’s coming very early in the conversation; if you hold back beyond that point, you’ll decrease the client’s ability to trust you.

By the way, “conversation” doesn’t equal “email” for significant bad news. It’s fine to send an email with details afterwards, but impart the actual news in person or, barring that, by phone or videoconference. (For example, one reasonable sequence is to deliver the bad news by phone, immediately send supporting material via email, and have an in-person meeting to discuss options for moving forward.)

Be sensitive to the other person’s body language (which you can infer even in a phone call). Note that he may need time to process the news (see step 4 below).

Don’t cry wolf or turn into Chicken Little, either. Not every setback or problem constitutes “bad news” in the context of this article. There’s a difference between “I’m running a bit behind but I can get this to you tomorrow, if that’s okay” and “the other side found the smoking gun in our e-discovery production.”

3. Describe Options Briefly

If the recipient clearly understands the bad news (see step 4 below), provide the range of options, whatever they may be. There aren’t always a lot of options, but usually there are at least a few. Briefly outline them, and if appropriate recommend one. Don’t get caught up in the “it depends” trap, complicating the situation with every possible twist and turn. Be clear and (in conjunction with the recipient) decisive.

4. Give the Recipient Time to Process the News

If the news comes as a surprise, the recipient will probably need time to process it. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her classic work On Death and Dying, described the five stages of grieving as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance; these stages generally apply to bad news of any significance.

5. Discuss Next Steps

Finally, conclude the discussion with action items or next steps – who will do what, by when, with given targets or goals. It’s okay if these next steps are temporizing – e.g., “we’ll gather facts, explore the options in some detail, and reconvene tomorrow to make some decisions.” You can’t necessarily solve all of the project’s new problems overnight. What you need to avoid is ending the conversation without direction, of leaving it all hanging.

Delivering bad news is rarely easy. (Paradoxically, bad project managers often do find it easy because it emphasizes whatever power they own in the relationship.) However, you make it much harder on yourself and on the client when you avoid the issue, or when you spin into fatalistic pessimism, Pollyanna optimism, or it-depends obfuscation and responsibility avoidance.

Step up. All project managers will at times have bad news to impart.


  1. Veronica Richard

    Brilliant! I can’t say that I’ve ever seen Uncle Bonsai quoted in a legal context before.

  2. I hate when people start asking me a series of questions to figure out a way to mitigate the bad news before they actually impart it. The first thing I will say is “Why are you asking me this? What has gone wrong?” It puts me into a defensive position. I would rather they say “I have some bad news” and get on with telling me.

    But it’s certainly tough being on the other end.

  3. m. diane kindree

    Steve, I like your approach except for #4 which could include the epistemological relevance in “bearing bad news”. While the process of learning the truth has some overlap with Kubler-Ross this model identifies how the process of integrating new information, with an person’s belief system, can have some unpredictable wave-like emotionally intensities associated with it. In this learning vs. grief model; ridicule (denial), opposition (anger and bargaining), and acceptance (depression and acceptance) are the major associated responses. In both my professional careers, I have been amazed at the resilient attitude of many patients who have received extremely bad news but their grief is short-lived and does not appear to play a prominent role in their approach to life. They just seem to take it in their stride making the best choices they can for themselves. In most, if not all of these cases, the patient had an amazing network of supporters: family, friends, church and community associations. What kind of support system does your client have to help them deal with the bad news?
    I believe the goal should be to attempt to leave the individual empowered even when presenting bad news.