Giving Bad News With Compassion
Conveying bad news is never easy and it’s natural to feel uncomfortable. However, improving your communication skills can make the situation go much smoother for everyone. Whether you need to break the bad news to children or adults, these strategies of letting them know about unfortunate events can make it easier for both of you. The most important thing to keep in mind is the way you deliver your message can impact people of any age. If you are calm and clear when you talk, people will feel your calmness and confidence. They will be more likely to model your behavior. It’s also important to knot blow up the unknown variables with negativity, try to keep everything positive without outright lying. Also, remember to practice compassion and empathy. Not everyone wants their problems solved, but most people want to feel like there are being heard and not brushed off.
If you read all the way to the end, I will give you a pro tip!
Breaking Bad News to Children:
- Consider the child’s age and maturity level. Babies and small children will react to their parent’s distress even if they don’t know what’s going on. Shield small children from TV news and reassure them if they’re exposed to something upsetting. Try your best to explain the situation in the most simplistic way.
School-age children may hear things from their peers that you’ll need to clarify without overwhelming them with excessive details. At about age 9, most children can think more logically and will benefit from thoughtful conversations.
- Be honest. Children need to know the facts. Otherwise, they may invent fantasy explanations of their own that are more frightening and destructive than the reality of the situation. For example, if your family is facing foreclosure, let your kids know why you’re moving but reassure them that you have plans for alternative living arrangements.
- Avoid excessive detail. You can tell a child the truth while sparing them the particulars. For example, if you and your spouse are getting divorced, explain that you’re moving out of the family home but refrain from discussing your dissatisfaction with your marriage. Any extra information can create a bias for your child to your spouse. While you may benefit from this, your child might lose out on the opportunity to grow a bond with your spouse. This also takes away from your child’s ability to make their own decisions, which can hurt them later in life.
- Let your kids talk. Having an opportunity to talk is therapeutic for your kids. You’ll get a sense of how much they already know and what questions they need answering. You may find they understand more than you thought. It’s also important for their ability to express themselves and have bonds when they are older. Emotions flow through us, if you deny you, child, the opportunity to express their thoughts/feelings, they only become repressed emotions that end up staying in the subconscious. A bottle of emotions that may someday explode.
- Repeat important messages. Small children can only absorb so much information at a time. For example, it’s common for them to ask if a relative who has passed on will be coming home again. Be prepared to repeat important discussions until their understanding deepens.
Breaking Bad News to Adults:
- Give advance notice, if possible. Disasters often strike unexpectedly, but there are many instances where you can help people prepare. People are more likely to overreact when blindsided. It may also help to prepare them for the conversation by asking them to have the conversation. But, don’t do this too far in advance, because you can set them on train of thoughts that only provoke worry. When it is almost time to talk, you can simply say something like “I have something important to say, can you give me a few minutes?”
- Create a private and comfortable setting. Allow someone a private setting for absorbing intense news. They’ll probably feel more comfortable without spectators around. It is also absolutely imperative that you do not deliver bad news over a text message if at all possible! Delivering the news like you are laying off your employee through a text message can seem very cold. You may have other things to you need to take care of, but try to practice compassion if possible.
- Outline your message. You can rehearse your speech without sounding as if you’re reading it aloud. This will help you to construct the most tactful wording and avoid dragging things out. You’ll also be more likely to convey all the necessary facts.This will also help you deliver the message without being in a panicked state. If you are panicked, that will subconsciously invite the person you are speaking with to also become panicked.
- Allow for tears. Be open to whatever emotional reaction occurs. It’s always good to have tissues ready. Wait patiently if people react with silence or crying. Empathize with their disappointment or anxieties. If it is appropriate, you may want to add some physical touch for comfort. Something as simple as a hand on the shoulder while saying something about how sorry you are, or that you are there for them can make a huge difference. For most people, it may be inappropriate to continue asking questions while someone is crying their eyes out.
- Share realistic hopes. If someone responds to bad news by stating they’ve already started taking steps to cope with the predicament, encourage them in their efforts. Avoid euphemisms or downplaying the seriousness of the situation if a person really needs to come to terms with a profound challenge.
- Be prepared with helpful resources. People may have trouble thinking clearly when confronted with a sudden loss. In case they want assistance, think ahead to what they’ll need next. They may appreciate the number for their local unemployment office or a relevant support group. The more you are able to help provide extra resources you can help provide, shows that you care.
- Follow up. People may be too overwhelmed to fully comprehend what you’re saying so they may not ask all the essential questions. If necessary, let them know you’re available to speak again when they’re ready for a more detailed discussion. Taking a little bit of time between delivering bad news and letting the other person process your message before moving the conversation forward can be extremely effective. It helps avoid people saying things that they may not truly mean.
Pro tip: Earlier we separated giving bad news into two categories, 1 for adults and 1 for kids. But really, you can and should use all of the tips above for both adults ad kids. Preparing your ahead of time will help you keep yourself together while talking to kids. Allowing adults time to talk will allow them to sort through their thoughts and process their emotions.
Bad news is an unpleasant fact of life, but the impact can be softened with understanding and sensitive dialogue. You can make it easier for kids and adults to get through rough times by being honest and empathetic and working to improve your communication skills.
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