How to Give Bad News Gracefully Using the SPIKES Protocol

In stepfamilies, we encounter times when we need to break bad news to someone- could be our children, stepchildren, or our spouse. Maybe we need to move to a new city or change the parenting schedule. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, but how can we feel comfortable breaking bad news to others? Working in higher education, I need to have tough conversations with students on a regular basis. These conversations frequently involve a change of degree or program for the student. Maybe their GPA isn’t high enough to follow the major they want to pursue. These conversations are life-changing for the student, but not a case of life or death. When I have these conversations, I follow the SPIKES Protocol, which is a six-step process for giving bad news. Originally developed for doctors who have to talk to cancer patients about their prognosis and treatment, the SPIKES Protocol can be applied to situations in which you need to impart bad news to others.

Let’s walk through the SPIKES Protocol steps:

Set up the Situation

Let’s imagine that you and your spouse need to talk to your teenage stepchildren about moving to a different city. You know that it’s going to be a tough conversation, so take some time to consider where you will talk to them. A comfortable, quiet place where you can have some privacy is best. You’ll also want to remove any physical barriers. Studies have shown that sitting next to each other rather than behind a table or a desk encourages a more spontaneous conversation.


Before you start telling, ask your stepchildren what they understand about the situation. This step is all about assessing the other person’s understanding or perception of the situation before you begin telling them the bad news. Therefore, you’ll ask open-ended questions, such as “You might have heard us talking about the potential promotion at work and how that might affect our family. What do you understand about the situation?” It’s important for you to understand the other person’s perception of the situation so you are on the same page. Make sure that you listen carefully while the other person is talking.


Now it’s time to invite the other person to discuss the situation. In our example, you’ll ask your stepchildren if they are ready to talk about the situation. Depending on what kind of day that person has had, they may or may not be in the frame of mind to talk about the situation. You can also ask them how they would like to receive the information. “Unfortunately, I have some bad news that I would like to share with you. Would you like to discuss it now?” This lets the person know that you have upsetting news to share, and it will help lessen the shock when they hear the news. They can brace themselves for the news. “How would you like me to share the information with you? Would you like a shortened version or do you want all of the details?”


During this step, your job is to impart knowledge. Explain the situation clearly and carefully by breaking it down into chunks if necessary and confirming that the person understands as you go along. You are responsible for giving the facts of the situation. With your stepchildren, you might say, “I got a big promotion at work which requires our family to move to the regional office in Texas. I will be the sales manager, and I will oversee about 100 people. It’s quite a promotion, and I have been working hard for the past 6 years, just waiting for an opportunity like this. I asked if there is any possibility of working remotely, but the vice president of the company said that it isn’t possible right now. They really need my leadership skills in the regional office right now. As you’re sharing the facts, you can ask, “Are you following me? Did that make sense?”


Show empathy to the other person. During this step, it’s important to observe and acknowledge the other person’s feelings. “I can see this is not what you expected. This must be tough for you.” If the other person is silent, you can ask exploratory questions to see how they are feeling or what may be bothering them.  “How do you feel about the situation?” or “What is your biggest concern?” With your stepchildren, give them a chance to express themselves, and then acknowledge their feelings.

Strategize and Summarize

Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, now it’s time to work together to figure out a plan for the future. Depending on the situation, you can come up with solutions, an action plan, or alternate options. In the example with your stepchildren, you could brainstorm some ideas on what could make the situation easier. You’ll also summarize the situation and make sure you answer any lingering questions your stepchildren have.

Even though giving bad news is never easy, if you follow the SPIKES Protocol, you’ll feel better equipped to handle the situation. What tips do you have for sharing bad news? What has helped you either give or receive bad news?