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The Gentle Art of Delivering Bad News

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The Gentle Art of Delivering Bad News

The Gentle Art of Delivering Bad News

Dr. Robert Buckman, oncologist and professor at Toronto University, has been delivering bad news professionally for decades. “Do It badly and people will never forgive you, do it well  and people will never forget you,” he affirms. Buckman developed a protocol called ‘SPIKES’ with companies IBM, Pepsi, and PricewaterhouseCoopers for learning to deliver bad news efficiently.  It consists of 6 steps that enable the person to fulfill the most important objectives when disclosing bad news.  As an oncologist, Buckman has a background dealing with bad news and death every day.

These suggestions can help whenever we need to deliver bad news. 

  • (S) Setting– Make the announcement personally. Sit about 4 feet, or 1.2m away at eye level and show interest by leaning forward. If its necessary to communicate through telephone or video acknowledge that the media is not appropriate. Please never deliver bad news through a letter or email. Arrange for privacy and include significant others. Stay focused and avoid distractions.  Try to sit down and relax to help create an empathic connection.


  • (P) Perception–  Learn what the other person knows or suspects, if you are going to dismiss  someone you can ask, “How do you believe things are going?”


  • (I) Invitation– Prepare them for what’s coming. Tell them you want to speak about a specific situation, that you are going to impart something big.

The Gentle Art of Delivering Bad News


  • (K) Knowledge–  Your message should be direct and in chronological order. For example, before delivering bad news recap everything that happened so far. You should have reference numbers, emergency numbers, and directions in case another person needs information.


  • (E) Empathy– This means understanding the person’s emotions. Be attentive and show solidarity, don’t say, ‘I know you’re sorry,’ or sad, or confused, because you don’t know for sure how the other person is feeling. Try phrases like, “This is a blow for you, we are truly sorry.”  Try to show interest, patience, comprehension, and confidence. Don’t look like you’re in a hurry, take your time.


  • (S) Summary– Do not end the conversation without properly addressing their emotions. Suggest what to expect, and how you can help them or do something for him/her.  Repeat the message several times to be sure its understood. They might be shocked, and may misinterpret some information. Outline steps to be taken.


Things  you never  want to say when delivering bad news:

Don’t give false hopes

Don’t minimize or underestimate the situation

Don’t blame anyone for what happened

Don’t lose your calm

Don’t use phrases or shocking words

Do not describe scenes of cruelty or that involve blood

Delivering bad news to children:

Children are not foolish, they can understand many situations, according to age. Don’t try to fool them

The best thing you can do is look to a close family friend or relative, if not available try a professional

If you don’t know how to explain something admit it, tell them you can’t explain it, but you can help find the answers.

Don’t lie, look to symbolic or metaphoric examples. If it’s about someone’s decease don’t tell them the person will be back or is an angel.

Don’t leave children alone during a crisis, make them a priority.



GARY M., S. (2014, February 24). Fine-Tuning Good Ways To Deliver Bad News. Investors Business Daily. p. A18.

Deliver bad news in the best way. (2011). Communication Briefings,30(10), 6.

There’s an art to delivering bad news. (2012). College Athletics & the Law, 9(5), 12.

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