How to Deliver Difficult News

One area of speech communication I find myself interested in is the art of delivering bad news. It's certainly no fun, but all people (and ministers) in particular, will face the need to deliver difficult news to a church, a family, or another person. In certain seasons, we may even have to do so frequently. These principles will help you in one-to-one communication, as well. Here are a few:

Tell the Truth. Do not omit relevant facts that might make you or the church look bad. This doesn't mean you have to deliver a full autopsy in public, but rather you tell the truth in a redemptive way. "Truth" can be told in a harmful way…with no pastoral care, or used to paint an unduly rosy or bleak picture. Truth in love is what we're after here. Truth honors God, builds trust in the church, and creates a culture of openness rather than secrecy.

Be Not Distant. Show some relationship to what has happened emotionally, not just mentally. Use people's names. Use language like "we" not "us" or "them." Talking about difficult news from a distance may make the speaker feel better and in control of their own emotions, but it will make the hearers feel cold. Feel free to let your own emotions out without them getting out of control.

Don't Blame Others. This will get you into trouble big time if you aren't careful. If someone else played a role in what's happened, you may need to include them in the truth-telling section (church discipline, etc.). But, don't unless you absolutely must. Accept responsibility, share responsibility, or, if it's something for which no one is to blame, simply be quiet on the matter. Blaming simply doesn't do much good and splits the audience into those who blames this person or that person. It can also make you look like a coward.

Point to Hope by answering the Question, "What Now?" Don't just leave everyone depressed or angry if there is a genuinely hopeful direction going forward. Hope is the gospel response to nearly every tragedy or difficulty. Leave space for people to mourn or be upset. Join them in it, if you wish. Then, take the first step out of it and invite them to join you. Point forward gently and clearly, conveying your own belief in what God can do, the beauty of the church as-is, and what the church can become.

The most masterful job I've ever seen at delivering difficult news was done by Ronald Reagan–who addressed the nation after the Challenger disaster. I still remember watching this on TV in Middle School. I've embedded the video below for your viewing. Notice how he includes the points I mention above. He doesn't deny the pain of the loss (tells the truth), he isn't distant (mentions the names of the astronauts and even talks directly to school children), avoids blaming others (in fact, he commends the NASA program which must have been feeling intense sorrow and many questions from the public) and points America forward with a hopeful future. Simply masterful. More tomorrow.

What else might you add? 

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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