10 Ways to Respond to Someone’s Bad News

8 minute read

The first thing you say when someone tells you their bad news determines where the rest of the conversation goes—and, sometimes, where the relationship goes. Responding in a less-than-ideal way can prompt your conversation partner to pull back and decide, “‘Well, I’m not going to bring that to you anymore,’” says Jenny Dreizen, an etiquette expert and the Scotland-based co-founder of Fresh Starts Registry, a website that offers dozens of scripts in order to provide words for moments that leave you at a loss. “We all get blank-page syndrome,” she says. “None of us know how to do this.”

With that in mind, we asked Dreizen and other experts to share their favorite ways to respond to someone who’s sharing bad news, from the trivial to the unimaginable.

“The disappointment is so real. I’m here to validate that for you.”

Imagine a friend just told you their vacation plans fell through, and they’re crushed. Your gut reaction might be that it’s a minor concern—it’s not life or death, right? “But we don’t dictate what upsets people,” Dreizen says. “And we don’t know what that vacation would mean to somebody.” 

That’s why she employs the VASE Method, which helps you present your words to someone as though they’re pretty flowers in a vase, she says. The acronym stands for: validate (recognize that their experience is real and true), acknowledge (show that you understand what they’re going through), support (offer to do what you can to lighten their load), and express (tell them how you feel, emphasizing your pride, love, respect, and compassion). In this case, after validating your friend’s disappointment, you might add: “How can I help you pivot a little? What can we do?” Or, you could offer to reach out to the airline and hotels to cancel reservations. “And then tell them how you feel—‘I love you so much and I know this is a bummer, but I’m here for you,’” Dreizen suggests.

“Please remember to just keep breathing. One breath at a time.”

This response works well when someone you love is going through something unfathomable, like pregnancy loss, Dreizen says. “In those horrible moments, you can really forget that you’re a person who still needs to breathe, who still needs water,” she says. “It seems almost goofy to remind somebody just to breathe, but it's also reminding them, it's not just one step in front of another. That's too much. It's one breath after the next, just to get through the next millisecond and then the next one.”

“How is this landing for you?”

People often ask Christine MacInnis, a therapist in Torrance, Calif., how she seems to always know the exact right words to say. She believes it’s because when someone shares news about a divorce, job loss, or other setback, she first asks how it’s landing for them. “In order to proceed appropriately with the right words of comfort, you need to know how it feels for them,” she says. “Maybe the divorce is a relief, or their job made them miserable.” She remembers comforting a close friend who had just lost her job—and the woman gave her a strange look and said, “I’m not sad at all! I hated that place. I told you so you could introduce me to your friend who works at XYZ company and I could share my resume.” Even therapists, she jokes, can sometimes read the room wrong, which is why gauging someone’s spirits can be so helpful.

“You are doing such a good job at being strong and brave, and I wish you didn't have to.”

When our loved ones experience hardship, we naturally want to protect them. That’s why Dreizen likes this line, or a slight variation: “I am so sorry this is part of your story now.” It’s essentially saying, “I know that you’ve got this, but I wish you didn’t have to,” she says. “It’s holding someone in their vulnerability and saying, ‘I see that you're being strong, but I wish that you could just be vulnerable and soft and lie in a bed.”

Read More: 11 Foolproof Ways to Start a Conversation

“Remember that rejection is a part of life, and it does not define your worth. Keep pushing forward, a better opportunity is waiting for you.”

As a recovering perfectionist, Dreizen understands the heartbreak that can be triggered by losing a dream job or promotion. That’s why it’s important to emphasize that professional rejection usually isn’t personal. “Things like that can feel like they’re about you, and they so rarely are,” she says. You could even send your message of support written in a card, along with flowers or a gift card, she adds—and let the other person know you’re there if they need to vent.

“We will figure this out together.”

When a work-related issue recently popped up for Dreizen, a friend told her: “We will figure this out together.” “I cried because I was like, ‘I didn’t think that was your problem,’” she recalls. “But we are responsible to each other in that capacity—we get to take care of each other. We don’t have to, but we get to, when we build a community.” Showing someone that they’re not alone can greatly bolster their resilience, she adds.

“This is a lot to handle. Would it help if I helped with [specific task]?"

Sometimes people don’t know what they need—or don’t want to ask for it, says Cassandra LeClair, a clinical associate professor of communication at Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, who specializes in communication in relationships. “By offering specific help, you show you’re ready to help,” she points out. Perhaps you could walk your friend’s dog, pick up their groceries, mow their lawn, or assist with an errand. “Make it clear you’re ready and willing, but they’re not obligated to take you up on your offer,” LeClair says. “And if you offer, mean it.”

Read More: 6 Compliments That Land Every Time

“I promise you, your story is safe with me, and we can move forward however you're comfortable, at your pace.”

It’s scary to share something that's vulnerable, embarrassing, or potentially shameful, Dreizen emphasizes—and then to feel like that story has traveled to husbands or sisters or mothers. So if a friend discloses something serious to you, like abuse, let them know they have your confidence. Make it clear that “their secrets are safe with you, and they're not going anywhere and aren't going to be fodder in any capacity,” she says. It’s also important to establish that you’re not going to push them on next steps or ask for more details than they’re ready to reveal. “We want to empower the sharer to know that, ‘I’m not going to decide what this means for you,’” Dreizen says. “I’m just here to support you and love you in this moment.”

"I'll check in with you from time to time to let you know I’m thinking about you. You don’t need to respond; I just want you to know that I’m here for you."

When Shari Leid was diagnosed with breast cancer, the comments that rolled in ranged from supportive to insensitive. People told her she was a warrior and that she’d fight the disease—both of which were meant to be encouraging but “felt empty.” Others—“Well, you get a free boob job” and “At least they caught it early”—struck her as dismissive.

The most meaningful support came from simple, thoughtful check-ins, rather than assumptions about her strength or prognosis, says Leid, a mindset coach in Seattle who’s the host of the podcast Life Unscripted. It was also non-intrusive. Next time someone you love is going through a hard time, let them know you plan to check in, she advises—but remove any pressure to respond, so that they have one less thing to worry about if they’re not up for a conversation.

Read More: How to Respond to an Insult, According to Therapists

“You don’t need to put on a brave face with me.”

It’s important to encourage authenticity, whether you’re talking to someone who’s going through a divorce, grappling with a scary diagnosis, or dealing with an entirely different set of unfortunate news. That’s why Leid likes reminding people that it’s OK to have tough days, and that she’s there to support them without judgment. While it’s fine to send this note via text, calling or video-chatting can help you “see or hear your loved one’s voice,” she says. That way, you have a more accurate sense of how they’re processing the situation—and can follow-up accordingly.

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