Be a Better Bearer of Bad News

The best way to say something no one wants to hear

Kate Morgan
Forge
Published in
4 min readNov 8, 2019

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A young woman grimaces, her hand to her face as she hears something on the phone, obviously bad news.
Photo: RapidEye/E+/Getty

WeWe all have times when we have to tell someone something they don’t want to hear: I’m not going to make that deadline. We don’t have the budget for that. Sorry, I have plans that night. Being the bearer of bad news is an unfortunate but inevitable part of being a human, along with birth, death, and getting spinach stuck in your teeth.

And when you are the bearer of bad news, there’s a good chance the person on the receiving end will take it out on you, whether they grumble out loud or just quietly seethe to themselves. Recently, a new study out of Harvard Business School titled “Shooting the Messenger” confirmed what most of us already suspected: We have a tendency to, well, shoot the messenger, pinning our displeasure about bad news on whoever delivers it. It’s not just that we subconsciously like them less; according to the study, we also tend to believe — whether it makes sense or not — that the messenger is happy about what they’re saying.

“We tend to irrationally believe people can control chance events,” says Leslie John, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and a co-author of this new study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. “If a meteorologist says the forecast is bad, our research says you’ll dislike that person because they’re giving you bad news. If you ask someone directly, ‘Do you think the meteorologist can control the weather?’ the answer is no, of course not. But these deep intuitive beliefs sink in.”

The good news: There are ways to mitigate that response. Using these tips, you can deliver bad news like a well-intended good Samaritan — or at least do a passable impression of one.

Don’t get riled up

People really don’t like the feeling of not being in control — and when they hear something they don’t want to hear, that dislike rears its ugly head. “These are aversive experiences for people — they make you feel like you don’t have agency,” John says. “From that perspective, laying blame on the messenger may be a coping mechanism that’s largely adaptive, but here it’s incorrect.”

So, when you do bear the brunt of a reaction to bad news, don’t respond in kind…

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Kate Morgan
Forge
Writer for

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.