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How To Respond When Someone Shares Bad News

It can be uncomfortable when someone shares bad or unpleasant news with you. How do you respond? Do you quickly try to “fix” the problem for them? Or try to change the subject and avoid discussing it further?

If you approach the person mindfully (being open, curious, and accepting of them), chances are you will see that deep down the person is suffering. It’s easy to get lost in stories of anger, resentment, anxiety, negativity, and sadness. These are all forms of suffering.

It is difficult to truly “be with” another person who is suffering. But, here are 7 tips for making it more manageable for you and helping them along the way:

  1. Just listen (self-regulation): This is the most important step. It might be that there is nothing helpful for you to say and that the pivotal action on your part is to sit with the person as they share.
    • Use your character strength of self-regulation to manage your impulse to take their suffering away and to “make it all better.”
  2. Figure out what is person is really saying (perspective): Sometimes the root of the problem is never spoken directly. While you listen to the person, ask yourself, “Where is the person coming from?” and “What are they actually saying or trying to say?” For example, a person yelling at their spouse for being late for dinner might really be sharing their sense of feeling disrespected and unloved.
    • Use your character strength of perspective to look at the bigger picture, beyond the details of the content being said.
  3. Veer toward empathy (kindness): It might be hard but try to get a sense of what the person might be feeling. If they are expressing hurt feelings, can you feel it too? If so, tell them that. Explain that you are with them in their suffering. Compassion is to suffer with and to be with the person; it is a type of kindness that we can offer to those we love.
    • Use your character strength of kindness to express care for them through your thoughts, feelings, and presence.
  4. Don’t go to the positive first (hope): When a person is entrenched in negativity, there is nothing wrong with pointing out what that person is missing or what they are not seeing – such as that there are many good things in their life. However, to do that first is often condescending, could appear Pollyannaish, and may be ignorant to the issue at hand. When the time is right, turn to your strengths.
    • Use your character strength of hope to offer a dose of optimism and help the person see that there is a pathway beyond the negativity prison.
  5. Enlist more support (leadership and teamwork): If the individual’s suffering is prolonged and/or appears to be affecting their daily functioning, then counseling or outside support might be particularly helpful.
    • Use your character strengths of leadership and teamwork to get helpers, friends, and professionals involved.
  6. Write a letter (love): This might seem like an odd suggestion for someone who is angry or in conflict with you in the moment. But, it is particularly powerful, and plenty of research reveals the benefits of writing about afflictive emotions. The prolific mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, often suggests people write a love letter to their partner when the other person is upset. For example, the letter might start with something like: “Dear __, I know you are suffering. I want to hear your pain and troubles. I am here for you…”).
    • Use your character strength of love to express your heart to the person you care about.
  7. Reminisce about their strengths (gratitude): It’s easy to forget a loved one’s best qualities when you’re angry at them. Make this a concrete activity.
    • Use your character strength of gratitude to write down 3 character strengths you are grateful that this person has and how they use each. Share this with them.

Deeper Application

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Nhat Hanh, T. (2001). Anger: Wisdom for cooling the flames. New York: Riverhead Books.

Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing (link is external). Boston: Hogrefe.

How To Respond When Someone Shares Bad News

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D

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APA Reference
Niemiec, R. (2019). How To Respond When Someone Shares Bad News. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Mar 2019
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