How to Give Bad News in English
This lesson was originally published in March 2016. It was updated in February 2019 and a video lesson was added.
It does not get more difficult than this in English. Today we are going straight to those awful, terrible, ‘I wish I didn’t have to’ situations! That’s right—when you have to give bad news in English!
Imagine you have to tell one of your best friends you can’t come to her wedding. (That happened to me in real life and it was terrible.)
Or if you have to tell…
- your boss that your project is over budget—awkward!
- your customer that you cannot meet their deadline. Definitely a difficult professional situation.
- your friend at work that he didn’t get the promotion.
These are all terrible situations!
Giving bad news to people we care about only makes more difficult. But, there are definitely things you can do to make it easy on them and on you.
After this lesson, you’ll know how to deliver bad news in the best possible way. You’ll know how to prepare what to say so you’re ready to give the bad news and STILL show that you are caring and professional.
So let’s take a look at 7 steps that will help you handle bad news like a pro, in both your professional and personal life.
7 steps to give bad news in English with kindness.
Lesson by Annemarie
7 Steps to Give Bad News in English with Kindness
If there is ever a situation to prepare what to say, this is it. Think about what you want to say beforehand, think about the words you will use and practice them first. Think about the reasons you will give and how you will implement steps 2 – 7.
Plan it out, practice it out loud, and go into the conversation ready.
2—Be direct and assertive
When delivering bad news, it’s important to skip the polite conversation, forget small talk. This is no time to ‘beat around the bush’, an idiom which means waste time talking about everything other than the thing you need to talk about. You need to cut to the chase or go to the point with bad news, it makes it much easier on the person getting the news.
So, these are the phrases you can use to do exactly that:
- There is no easy way to say this, but…
- I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news…
- I’m sorry to have to tell you that…
- It is my unfortunate duty to tell you that…
- I’m afraid we won’t be able to…
- There is no easy way to say this, but…
- I’m sorry to have to tell you that…
- I’ve got some bad news…
- I regret that …
- Maybe you should sit down for this…
- I am so sorry, but…
P.S. If you want more help on How to Be Assertive in English (direct but polite), be sure to check out my lesson on that.
It can take time for people to take in and understand bad news. So after you give the bad news it’s helpful to pause to give someone time to think and absorb what you have just said. These phrases can help with that:
- Do you need a minute?
- I can see this is a shock, I will give you a minute.
- I will give you a moment to clear your head.
4—Give background facts
Explain the background or the details of the bad news. People always want to know why. Make sure you stick to the facts here and skip the unnecessary extra detail or excuses, just clearly and directly give a couple of reasons the situation is happening. Keep it simple, honest and factual. Here are some sentences starters to help you:
- It was a matter of…
- Unfortunately, there are some problems with…
- Due to [talk about the problem]…
- After consulting with my colleague/boss/the (sales/marketing/hiring/HR) team…
- It’s because…
- The main thing…
- It’s not possible because…
When giving bad news, it’s important to respect and show understanding for the other’s feelings or response. It’s likely that the news will be upsetting, even unexpected, so be sure to offer sympathy to help calm the situation.
- Please accept my apologies for any inconvenience this has caused.
- Please accept my apologies. I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear.
- Please accept my apologies. I wish that the situation were different.
- I can appreciate your feelings on this. I know it isn’t what you hoped for.
- I can appreciate why you feel that way.
- Sorry again for…
- I understand why you feel that way.
- I can see why you might feel that way.
- I can see why you would think that (but)…
- I thought it was possible but…
- I really wish I could help you but…
In some situations, being supportive and trying to offer alternative solutions or focusing on the positive can help. But, if the news is particularly bad, it is best to avoid trying to focus on the positive because then it might be offensive or hurtful. For those situations where it would be helpful to be constructive and supportive you could say:
- Would you consider an alternative solution such as…?
- I know it isn’t the answer/result/solution you wanted, but what about…?
- If there is a silver lining* here, it’s that…, so perhaps you could…
*In English we have an idiom: Every cloud has a silver lining. What this means is for every negative or bad situation, there is always something positive that can come from it.
- It’s not what you want, but how about…?
- I have another idea…
- It’s not the same, but what about…?
7—Don’t take it personally
When people receive bad news, their emotions may run from angry to sad and anything in between. Even if you have mastered the art of delivering bad news, they may still say something angry towards you simply because you are the one giving the bad news.
Don’t take it personally, the saying ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ exists exactly because in that moment of strong emotion people say regretful things to the bearer of bad news! They are just going through their reaction, it is not about you.
Staying calm and remembering it’s about how they’re feeling will help, you might say something like:
- I can see you are sad/angry. I’m so sorry.
- I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. I’m so sorry.
- Or simply say: I’m so sorry.
- In a really informal situation you could even say ‘this sucks! I’m so sorry!’
Putting It All Together
Hello, Stephen, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. The company has offered the promotion to someone else. I had really hoped to offer you the position but the management team chose another applicant because they have more experience. I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear but I hope that you’ll continue to seek opportunities like this with the company as you clearly have a lot to offer.
Emily, I’ve got bad news. I know we planned to go on vacation together next month and you’ve already paid the deposit, but unfortunately I have to attend a conference for work, so I won’t be able to go with you. It really sucks and I’m sorry to let you down. It’s not the same, but what about we book a long weekend trip the month after and I will repay you for the deposit?
Now I’d love to hear from you!
Have you ever given bad news in English? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below.
Here is your chance to practice:
- Imagine you have to tell your best friend you cannot come to her special birthday celebration that you have been planning together. How do you break the news?
- Next you need to tell your colleagues that there is no budget for an end of year party this year. What do you say?
Share your answers with me in the comment section below. It’s the best way to get practice, receive feedback, and learn from others in the Confident English Community.
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