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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I love your lessons.
I love your work.
Hi guys, I’m afraid I have some bad news. The company has informed me that there is no budget for an end of year party this year. Please accept our apologies. How about we organize the party with our budget? We will not spend so much it will only be to enoy time together. What do you think?
Hello, my beautiful best friend. There is no easy way to say this, but I can’t go to your birthday celebration because I have to work this weekend.
Please accept my apologies. I wish the situation were different.
I know it’s not what you want, but how about you hang out with me in two weeks? I will book at the restaurant that you like so much, we will have an excellent time and I have planned that it would be a good idea to go on a trip and I will pay for everything.
I simply FEEL more professional having watched and listened to several of these videos!
I am so interesting this lesson. could you please give me one example for declare bad news to my client.working in financial industry.
Hi Annemarie mam, It’s a great video for me😊 Sometimes we are not understand how to say bad news to others, but you are telling such a great ways. 1. I am so sorry to have to tell you this but I am not able to come your birthday party, I have some important work . But once my work is over I will throw Birthday party for you my frd😊. 2. Hi guys, there is no easy for me to say this , our year end party is cancelled this year because of some budget issue. But Company will… Read more »
Hi Annemarie, First of all, I think this website is sensational! Thank you for sharing this. I just read from the July issue of Harper’s magazine the article written by a linguist titled “How I learned to live with the singular they”. This article talks about the move to remove gender in pronoun in the English language. Other languages, such as Tagalog, which is my native language, has no gender in pronoun. The example below that I copy-pasted from your “How to Give Bad News in English” lesson, struck me. My understanding is that you are referring “they” to “another… Read more »
Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment (and sharing the title of the articles you read — I’m looking forward to reading it myself).
Yes, you’re correct that in the sentence, “…because they had more experience” I am using the pronoun ‘they’ in the singular, non-gender form.
Thank you for the nice lessons.
Now the answers:
1. Hi John , I am afraid I want be able to come to your party. You know how much I would love to be there but something unexpected happened which is serious enough . Sorry again.
2.All , I am sorry to inform you that we will not have the party this year. Unfortunately this specific budget will be targeted to some important campaigns however I hope to be able to arrange a smaller party between us in some weeks.
Hi Annemarie, thanks for another helpful lesson, and compliment for your beautiful look! Now the task… 1) I don’t know how to tell you this, so I cut to the chase: I cannot come to your birthday party because my mom get a bad flu, and she needs my help. I’m so sorry, and I know you will understand, because you know my mom, and you know how she is… I know that it’s not the same, but what about we have a dinner together next week? 2)I’m sorry to have to tell you that, but there is no budget… Read more »
Thanks so much for the comment, Annalisa. I liked your use of the idiom from the video, “I’ll cut to the chase.” Well done. You’ve done a nice job combining the strategies you learned in the lesson with some of the phrases you learned as well.
And I hope you got to go to dinner! 🤣
If you receive such a request, would “dinner tonight would be lovely” be a formal answer or rather a colloquial one?
That would be a formal, very polite response, Katharina. 🙂
1. Ana, I’ve got bad news. I know we have been planned your birthday party together but I can’t come over and participate. Unfortunately I have to work trip at the same day and I’ll be away from the city. I know it wasn’t what you were expecting, I’m so sorry. Alternatively we could hang out the week after and celebrate it. 2. Hi everyone, I know we are a really connected and close team and we like enjoying the end of the year with a big party. However I’m afraid to tell you that we don’t have budget this… Read more »
Excellent, Maisa!! I love how you’ve combined the strategies and phrases you learned in the lesson for these examples!
There is one thing I want to review. Is there anything you would change here, “I know we have been planned…”? 🤔
1) I’m so sorry, but I can’t celebrate your birthday. My parents have inviter me to Spain, and I feel, that I need to follow them. I know it is a great offer for them. Sorry again.
2) There is no easy way to say this, but this year, there will be no year party. It is not possible, because there is no budget for it. I know it isn’t what you hoped for.
Excellent, Inge! You’ve used the strategies and expressions from the lesson perfectly. Nicely done.
Sorry ,answer number 2 little bit I made mistake the last line, I should say is ,it will A just. because I forgot to put A that’s why I mentation here.
Hello Annemarie. Thank you for wonderful lesson. 1 -Hello my friend, i hope you are doing great ,i would like to tell you something,pls accept my apologies,i know this isn’t wanted to hear ,sorry I can’t attend your birthday party, because resently i got important call my grandpa is in hospital i must go now ,but if i saw him is doing well i will try as i can to attend the party.i hope you shall understand my situation.Thanks i wish all the best. 2- My dear colleagues ,Sorry it isn’t easy to say ,but after consoulting with my colleague/boss/… Read more »
Nicely done, Munira. You’ve used the strategies and the language from the lesson well here. 🙂
1. Hey, dear, I have to tell you something, I know you’ll understand, anyway, I can’t come to your birthday party, but promise, I’ll make your next birthday unforgettable!
2. There is no easy way to say this, but, my dearest colleagues, I have to go abroad immediately, I have honorable reason for that, forgive me if you can!
Thanks Annemarie for the best advices! Love you.
Hi Ann, I’m so glad the lesson was helpful to you! And great work using the strategies you’ve learned, particularly with number 1. 👍
I was curious—if you go abroad, why does that mean you can’t have a holiday party at work or give out bonuses?
Because they are at the same time, so, I have to make choices between them.
I see. However, the problem is the company doesn’t have money. As a result, there will be no holiday party for anyone. Also, there is no money to give people a salary bonus. How would you tell your colleagues about that problem?
This lesson was supurb and it was really worthwid to use in some contex personally of course I have’ nt got that much bad new a lot so far furtunatly and given that as well but by some psycological tips pointed to, i found usfull way to express sympathy with others.
Thank you so much hony
Awesome. I’m glad it was a useful lesson and hopefully it will help if you have to give bad news in English.
Hi Annemarie, Valuable lessons and gave me a gauge on how to say the bad news to someone without hurting their feelings. My answers to this lesson: I know you had high expectations for me to come to your birthday party, but unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend due to a project work that needs to finish on the same day as your birthday party scheduled. I hope you will accept my apologies this time and have fun!!!!!!!!!!!! I am sorry to have to tell you that we can not go ahead with the year-end party that we have… Read more »
Well done, Hyder! I particularly like your used of “Due to some unexpected hiccups at work…” Great language there!
I have a date with my grlfriendd to celebrate her birthday next Friday. I invited her to go out for dinner but my boss had a seriuos problem with a project and that’s why we’re going to work from Friday until Sunday, day and night, and that’s why I can’t go with her to the restaurant, then I can tell her something that: There is no easy way to say that we can’t go out for dinner next Friday because unfortunately there are some big problems with the most important company’s project we’re working and we have to deliver it… Read more »
Excellent job using the language and strategies in the lesson, Diego. That is definitely a kind way to share the bad news with your girlfriend.
I struggle with giving poor job performance evaluations. I took your advice listed here in giving bad news. I was wondering if you have tips on not only giving job performance evaluations good and bad. I am also interested in how to give direction or advice in professional way with person or persons who are very negative with receiving information of any kind from you. I have attempted to speak in a softer manner, ensure my arms are open not crossing my arms, asking for their thoughts before speaking. It seems even if I smile it’s perceived as being a… Read more »
Hello BB, That is truly a difficult task. And you’ve asked a great question on how to give advice to someone who is negative or won’t receive feedback. I’d love to do a Confident English lesson on this topic! It sounds like you’re already doing some good things with speaking softly, using the right body language, asking for their thoughts. One extra thing you could try is to always start with positive feedback and clear examples. Tell them what they’re doing really well and how you appreciate them. Then you can add that you’d like to see them excel in… Read more »
Thanks for the post. It is very useful! On the other hand, I would also very appreciate that you can give some nice examples on how to respond to bad news when receiving it.
I’m very happy to know the lesson was useful to you! And I think you read my mind! In a couple of weeks I’ll have part 2 of this lesson, which is how to respond to bad news. 🙂 So be sure to watch for that lesson.
Best wishes and thank you for your comment. ~ Annemarie
Thank you Anne Marie for this lessons. It was very useful. I think, these steps are useful not only with English speaking people, but with any other ones, ‘coz you have mentioned even psychological components ( in video). I think its very important, most people feel difficulties while giving bad news, no matter in what language. So thank you once again for this lesson!
Thank you so much for your comments. I’m very glad it was helpful to you — both the language in the lesson and the video. And you’re right – most of us feel terrible when we have to give bad news. It’s very difficult to do, so it’s best to be as prepared as possible.
Thanks again for the comments. ~ Annemarie
Fortunately enough I have never had any experience of giving bad news in English that’s why I am not good at this. That’s why today’s topic is twice useful for me))! To be warnedis tobe armed)) On the other hand I wrote a lot of formal letters, better to say e-mails, to suppliers, partner companies etc. informing about some problem with payment, delivery delay, quality claims and others. So I frequesntly used such expressions as “please accept our appologies”, “we regret to inform you that…” Thank you , Anne Marie, for 5 strategies in the video, because they mostly concern… Read more »
I’m so glad this was useful to you! It is a delicate and complicated topic. I’m glad you haven’t had to give too much bad news, but it sounds like you had some experience with writing emails — and you’re expressions were exactly right!
And thank you for the comments on the video lesson. I agree with you that it’s important to understand psychological issues as well because these can be very different from one culture or language to another.
Thanks Olga!! ~ Annemarie