Psychological keys to communicating bad news

There’s no way to turn bad news into something that isn’t; then, reporting a fatal event will always be difficult. Although there is no single ideal shape or pattern, the emotional impact can be less if we apply the best strategies during the procedure.

What events are we talking about? We refer to the cases in which it is necessary to communicate:

  • The death of a loved one
  • A serious accident
  • A terminal illness

All share the possibility of a fatal outcome that has already happened or is about to happen.

Who will be the communicator?

The manager will introduce himself beforehand if he is not from the surrounding area. In professional circles, it must be the person who supports the maximum category of work, because gives more credibility to the news. Additionally, experience, training, and individual history can make it easier.

    Keys to follow when giving bad news

    The most appropriate thing, given the importance of communication, is to do it in person (and not through other means like the telephone). It is recommended maintain eye contact, as well as an appropriate tone of voice and rhythms (pauses). Simple language is preferable to using technical details which can be confusing, as we will try to give a clear message from the start.

    First of all (always after having prepared the environment), we discover what he knows. For example: Did you hear about the event that happened this afternoon in the mall? Did he contact you? An authority ?

    In the health media they try to give the news in phases, such that the person even assumes to discover the result on their own. Use short sentences. Consider the following example: “Did your son go to mall X this afternoon?

    We are sorry to inform you that a terrible accident has occurred. There were casualties and injuries. We’re sorry to have to break this news to you (it’s highly likely that the recipient has already discovered the information; if they have, there is no need to tell them). If you haven’t figured it out, we can try to sweeten the news with some kind information about it.

    For example: the rescue teams acted urgently but despite their efforts, their son’s number is among the dead. Or: su hijo no suferió when it happened… (Even if, you have to give the place, etc.) He’s at hospital X, where the autopsy is going to be performed or something… He’s recommended to leave all these data in writing because with the emotion of the moment they cannot retain this. If you ask what happened, you must give truthful information; that we will have checked and insured before proceeding. The usual questions are whether he was alone, whether he suffered, where is he now, etc.


      We must be prepared for the reactions that may be triggered, especially if they require attention. For instance: fainting, panic attacks, aggression.

      The recommendation is not to be judgmental whatever the reaction, it is about the feelings of the person and it is only because of this that they are legitimized. Nor does he claim to have the right words to comfort emotional pain. If we do not know what to say, it is advisable to accompany in silence, not to interrupt. Nod or gesture with empathy and don’t be impatient. Offer assistance with making a call or…

      Of course, the environment in which to achieve this feat must ensure confidentiality. If you can count on the proximity of a family member to support you, everything will be fine.

        Common task for some professionals

        Having personally or professionally experienced this traumatic event, it is normal and adaptive to feel discomfort. The reaction is very different if the environment is personal, where one may even be involved by friendship or kinship; or if it is a professional environment.

        In the second case, depending on our professional role, it is likely that the circumstance will recur (healthcare, civil protection, state security forces and bodies, etc.). when it happens we learn to react “badly” to death; As a safeguard, we learn to “professionalize” the facts in order to be able to separate the painful and interfering feelings in our personal life. We also learn to “objectivize” the deceased and transform him into case X, case Y, etc.

        This reaction occurs naturally to be able to face and overcome such a degree of trauma in our lives and is not a problem. The downside comes when we experience loss in our personal environment; the reaction we exhibit in this case usually mimics the professional reactionhindering or delaying the development of non-pathological grief.

        If the reader finds themselves represented in this last scenario, I recommend that they take the time to reflect on the loss and awakening of the dulling of emotions, which so often appears on such occasions. In other words, take enough time to accept reality instead of immediately continuing with the daily routine.

        And if you need it, it matters go to psychotherapy, without a doubt. A few sessions can avoid a process that is too long or pathological.

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