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ATD Blog

How to Deliver Bad News With Empathy

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

I still remember the day when my doctor told me I was going to need another hip surgery. After years of competing all over the world on great international teams, I would no longer be able to compete in the sport I loved: adventure racing. While I was initially crushed, as you may have guessed, I’m thankful for how skillfully my surgeon delivered the bad news.

I know what you’re thinking, “A surgeon was good at giving bad news?” Yes. Doctors get training in medical school on how to deliver bad news and practice it every day when talking to patients.

Most businesses do not give comprehensive training on how to deliver bad news. Bad news is the ugly stepchild that no business wants to acknowledge. Like Harry Potter, it’s often hidden in a cupboard under the stairs. So it’s no surprise we are all so bad at giving (and receiving) bad news.

What Counts as Bad News?

Bad news can take many forms in a company. It could be negative feedback on performance, turning down a request, or even layoffs.

Before I go further, let’s be clear about what I mean by “bad” news. According to Robert Bies, bad news is “information that results in a perceived loss by the receiver, and it creates cognitive, emotional, or behavioral deficits in the receiver after receiving the news.”

The key word here is “loss.” Though, I’ve had wins in my career (shout out to my EcoChallenge World Champion teammates), I’ve also experienced many losses—both in competitions and seeing families devastated as their homes burned while working as a firefighter in San Diego. So I’ve learned a thing or two about delivering and receiving bad news to better handle those cognitive, emotional, or behavioral deficits you might encounter with your company or team in the workplace.

3 Steps to Delivering Bad News With Empathy

As I said in my book How Winning Works, “People will always remember how you treated them in their lowest moments.” Nothing is truer when you have to deal with informing your company or your team of bad news. I also practiced this as a firefighter speaking to families who had lost their homes in brush fires.


The key to delivering bad news is empathy. You have to use what I call “double vision.” We all are good at seeing things from our own point of view, but you must also be able to understand what something feels like from another person’s point of view. You are informing them about a loss. Bies explains that you should follow three steps when giving bad news: preparation, delivery, and transition.

Prepare Your Listener. First, prepare your listener with an advance warning. Let them know you going to deliver bad news. In my case, the doctor did not start off with a knock-knock joke. The surgeon explained he had something serious to tell me. This advance warning prepares the listener for what you have to say.

Deliver and Discuss. Next, calibrate the receiver’s expectations for the bad news. In my situation, my doctor did not tell me that I could never do any sport again. The surgeon explained that I would not be able to run again in competition.

Depending on the news, you may need to provide a space for the listener to react. Bies calls this an “opportunity for voice,” in which you allow discussion of bad news. This is the time to answer questions or to let the receiver state their feelings.


Sometimes a person needs clarification or to vent. This is not the time to defend what you said or offer false hope. Instead, this is the time to tell the truth and give full disclosure. My doctor had fully explained about my hip prognosis and what would happen if I continued to use and abuse it.

Transition to the Next Steps. After the bad news has been delivered, your job is not finished. You may need to transition the employee with more information, especially if it is a layoff, or maybe provide suggestions on how to improve if it is negative feedback. In my case, I received information about physical therapy and recovery, not suggestions for how to continue my sports career.

Remember, your job is to be honest and empathetic, not to solve problems. Solving problems is part of the process of receiving bad news.

I’ll talk about how to handle bad news in my next post. Stay tuned.

About the Author

Robyn Benincasa is a CNN Hero, motivational speaker, thought leader, world champion adventure racer, founder of Project Athena, and author of the New York Times bestseller How Winning Works.

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