Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Wednesday, 2 June 2010 12:06 UK

What's the best way to break bad news?


By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Seven England footballers are recovering from the shock of learning they won't be going to the World Cup. In many areas of life, you have to tell people bad news. What's the best way?

The delivery of bad news is now a successful money-spinning television format.

Millions tune in to see Lord Alan Sugar point his finger and say: "You're fired" or Simon Cowell to simply roll his eyes and tell another singer they've failed the audition.

But real life is different.

Giving someone news you know will hurt them is probably the hardest kind of conversation to have, requiring sympathy and care.

So how should it be done?


Seven mobile ringtones heard at lunchtime on Tuesday would have sent a chill down the spine of the phones' owners.

Six of the seven England players told they were not going to the World Cup were probably braced for the worst. For Theo Walcott, playing golf in Hertfordshire at the time, it was a shock.

Sharing phone calling duties were team manager Fabio Capello and his assistant Franco Baldini. Captain Rio Ferdinand said last week that he also intended to speak to the unlucky few.

One of Capello's predecessors, Glenn Hoddle, called the players into his room one by one, although one of the squad's most gifted players, Matthew Le Tissier, had already found out he wasn't going to France 98 when Teletext revealed he didn't make the pre-World Cup squad of 30.

Clockwise from top left: Leighton Baines, Michael Dawson, Adam Johnson, Theo Walcott, Darren Bent, Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker
The (not so) magnificent seven

So, which is the more sensitive tactic - on the phone or in person?

"If the manager has the time, the players are in a convenient location for him and there is clear feedback and discussion to be had, then face-to-face is clearly more personal," says Chris Harwood, a sports psychologist at Loughborough University.

But a phone call means players can be in a more relaxed environment, at home with friends or family, when they get the news, he says. And it might be more practical.

What is more important is that Capello is candid and honest about the reason the player has not been selected.

It's important not to say one thing about the player and then allow yourself to be quoted or overheard saying something different
Sports psychologist Chris Harwood

"It's important not to say one thing about the player and then allow yourself to be quoted or overheard saying something different. So have a consistent script or storyline about the squad.

"It's a very tough position to be in because you can't select or deselect just on individual strengths, it's also how that player fits in with certain tactical plans."

The player should be given specific areas of improvement to help him. "Emphasise the value of the player to the game and to the country and the role they have played in getting selected for the initial 30."

Although the player will be disappointed, you want them to still feel proud to be part of the wider set-up and pleased for those team mates boarding the plane to South Africa.


"It depends on how long you've been together, but for either a short or longer time, it's good to do it face to face," says Judi James, an expert in personal and business relationships. "The worst case scenario is the phone, but that's fine if you've just been dating. Definitely not by text or e-mail."

Jilted bride
Not by phone and not at the wedding

If you want to go out somewhere, pick a quiet place for a drink but don't go for dinner - once the news is out, one person is probably not going to be very hungry.

"You can be dumped by the end of the first course and then you have to sit through the second. And the person doing the dumping can eat their way through three courses, but the one being dumped is feeling sick."

The question everyone on the receiving end of this asks is "why?"

"You can tell them the truth, which is you met someone better or you didn't like them anyway, but no-one wants to hear that."

She suggests lying if the truth will hurt. It might be a cliche, but "you're too good for me" can work, allowing the dumpee to leave with some ego intact.

One more cardinal rule, she adds - don't change your Facebook status to "single" before you've had the chat.


Being told you've lost your job can feel like life is crumbling into pieces, so it's important it's done sensitively.

Not like compensation claims company Accident Group, which in 2003 sacked 1,500 employees by text message.

Sir Alan Sugar
Probably not wise to point, or do it in front of a crowd

Some people define themselves by their jobs, so it's vital the manager doing this has been trained in the human and legal issues involved, says Ms James.

If you copied the boardroom scenes of The Apprentice and fired someone in front of colleagues, you could be facing a lawsuit, she says.

"There's a lot of rubbish about [a business technique called] The Sandwich, which is to tell the good news, the bad news and then some good news at the end.

"So they tell you that you're the best person they have ever had, so you think you're getting a promotion or a pay rise, and they slip into the conversation that they're getting rid of you. Having your hopes raised only makes it worse."

Short and sharp is probably the best, because people don't want to linger in this atmosphere.

"They've lost their dignity and don't want you to stick around being sympathetic. Don't try to be their best friend and tell them how wonderful they are, it will just sound hollow.

Even though people are in shock they go away with a little mantra in their head, and that will be the life raft they will cling to until they find another job
Judi James

"If your company is big enough, direct them to someone else for practical help, like advice on searching for another job. But don't do that yourself. People just want to get off to the toilet to have a cry or vomit."

Be honest about the reason why, because you could face legal action if you don't tell the truth. If it's due to a policy of "last in, first out", and not down to their skills, then that really helps.

"Even though people are in shock they go away with a little mantra in their head, and that will be the life raft they will cling to until they find another job. They will still be hurt, but it could give them confidence."


Many university departments publish exam results on notice boards, which is a very public way to learn whether you have passed or failed.

Students check exam results
'What does 'F' mean?'

But many faculties take care to speak face-to-face to "vulnerable" students who are facing elimination from the course, says Clare Taylor, head of the student welfare service at Leicester University.

"If a student fails an exam, then they would normally have one more bite of the cherry," she says, and there is plenty of support to help them before they re-sit.

There may be mitigating circumstances that the student union's education officer can give to the department's exam board, and a student learning centre can help with exam skills. So there are lots of options before a course place is totally terminated, she says.

"If you know you have a vulnerable student, you would speak to them before they see it on a notice board. That would be very brutal. But departments are usually quite good at this now, and academics are good at getting someone in to speak to them."

The education officer can help find another course or alternative training. And if there are emotional issues involved, the student would be directed to a counselling service.

"It can be made into more of a positive than bluntly saying: 'The course is over.' Everything possible is done to allow that student to succeed, but if they fail there are mechanisms to move them on supportively."

Below are a selection of your comments.

A year ago, my fiance of 10 years dumped me. He did it via email, on the morning of New Year's Eve. Admittedly, the last 2-3 years of the relationship were rocky, but that email was a very painful bolt out of the blue. I'd have much preferred he had been a man and honoured all those years we'd been together by telling me to my face.
Dumped, Better off for it

The worst I've had was to lose my job when we weren't even told the business was being cut in half! If the employees had been fore-warned about the possibilities of redundancies we could have at least been prepared and made some enquiries about work elsewhere. To top it off I was then escorted out of the building by my now-former manager. I felt like a common criminal!
Stephen, Caerphilly

The most cliched way of dumping someone has to be "It's not you, it's me" It really works well though, saving you from having to admit the awful truth and sparing feelings
Callum, Edinburgh

It might be a cliche, but "you're too good for me" can work? I don't think so. Truthfulness and honesty in a respectful and caring manner is what is needed to let someone down, not immature lies.
Brodie Sandison, Tongue, Scotland

"I really don't know how this company would survive without you, but from Monday, I thought we'd give it a try and find out."
Marc, Wigan

Maybe I'm odd but I prefer to be dumped on the phone than in person. If someone's going to break my heart I'd rather not have to look at them when they do it.
Harriet, Oxford, UK

Of all the cases above the only one I find myself thinking "So what?" about is the footballers. If they can't take any solace from the obscene wages they receive for doing something profoundly useless and often not very entertaining...tough nuggies.
Cynical Old Man, Manchester

Footballers are human, Cynical Old Man: they still have pride and feelings. It is not always clear what the motivations of a footballer are, but I expect a few of them are still driven by that little boy they once were who wanted to play for England.
Naive Young Man, Milton Keynes

The worst thing is to be told that you have a critical illness over the phone. It happened to me and I can assure you that this is not the best way to inform a patient about his or her condition. A face to face conversation where you get the time to come to terms with it and can ask questions is in situations like this preferable.
Mary, Guildford

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