Giving someone unwelcome—and often unexpected—information is such an unpleasant experience that we have not one, but two common expressions acknowledging it. Whether it’s announcing that we “hate to be the bearer of bad news,” or asking the recipient of the news not to “shoot the messenger,” these phrases are more about absolving ourselves of any guilt we may be feeling about delivering the less-than-desirable message than it is about making it easier on the other person.
There are also a handful of other common expressions we pepper into these conversations that we may think are helpful or comforting, but are actually the opposite. When tasked with delivering bad news, we may be ultra-conscious of our body language, and using an appropriate tone. While those aspects of the conversation are certainly important, focusing on them may make what we’re actually saying to the person an afterthought—prompting us to recite tired lines that are not only cliché, but in some cases, lack empathy. Examples of those phrases to avoid include:
“It could be worse.”
We may think that this phrase helps put things in perspective for the recipient of the bad news, and in a way, it does—demonstrating that the current situation could, in fact, be worse if someone were to minimize its impact. Or, as Ray W. Christner a licensed psychologist with an independent practice in Hanover, Pa. puts it: “[The phrase] can be viewed as a dismissal of the experience, and invalidate the person’s feelings.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
According to Christner, statements like this can be upsetting as it implies there’s a justification for the bad news. Telling someone something they don’t want to hear is bad enough without making it sound like their misfortune was a necessary step towards something bigger—which they may or may not benefit from themselves. See also: “This is all part of God’s plan.”
“You’ll be over this in no time.”
In addition to lacking empathy, using phrases like this one—suggesting that the bad news isn’t a big deal—can change the context of the message, says Aura De Los Santos, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in the Dominican Republic. “Try to be direct and tell it like it is,” she says. “That doesn’t mean saying it in a rude way, but expressing it clearly so that the receiver can express the right emotions.”
“I know exactly how you feel.”
As adults, we should understand that experiences are unique to each person. “We use this in an attempt to ‘normalize’ the experience, but this can be viewed as inconsiderate and unconcerned,” Christner says. Instead, he suggests saying, “I’m sure that’s hard, and I’m here for you to support in anyway.”
As Lifehacker Managing Editor Meghan Walbert explained in 2019, this phrase “is minimizing at best and offensive at worst.” It’s in the same category as “look on the bright side.” In short, don’t use it—even if you think you’re being helpful.
“You should be thankful that…”
Like several of the other phrases on this list, this one “uses language that is laced with the sender’s judgment of the news, instead of letting the receiver make sense of the news and determine their own feelings,” says Hannah Yang, licensed psychologist and founder of Balanced Awakening, a psychotherapy practice for women and couples in Chicago.
Tips for giving someone bad news
Rather than relying on the clichés above, Yang and Christner have some suggestions for getting through the tough conversation:
Take a beat
Though you may be tempted to get the unpleasant task of delivering bad news over with as quickly as possible, Christner says that rushing through the conversation isn’t a good idea. “It’s OK to pause and have a moment of silence to intentionally choose the words you want to use,” he says.
Use compassionate language
Yang recommends choosing language “that conveys compassion and an openness for whatever the receiver’s feelings may be,” as it can help them stay calm at a tense moment.
Stick to the facts
Focus on communicating the facts of the situation. “Wait for the receiver to respond before adding anything else,” Yang says. “See how they make sense of the news first, then come up with a response that is supportive of their initial understanding of the news.” Again, avoid downplaying the bad news, or the person’s reaction to it. Instead, she suggests saying things like, “Yeah, this is hard news to digest,” or “it may take a while to process this.”