Help me minimize the pain of some bad news.
March 23, 2010 10:48 PM   Subscribe

This will hurt. :( I have to share some news that will be really hard to hear. How can I minimize the pain?

The person I'm telling is someone I care deeply about. I've known him for years.

The exact news isn't something I want to include in this question -- while it's not a breakup, it's somewhat like that emotionally. It's not something I did wrong (or anyone did wrong), and I'm not concerned he'll think it is. It's a choice I've made that excludes him and favors someone else (someone he's met but doesn't reguarly have to see) in a way that will hurt and deeply disappoint him to hear.

I'm sad that I'll be making him sad. I realize I haven't had to share much hurtful news with anybody in my life, and I'm nervous because I don't know how to make it hurt less. Telling him sooner rather than later feels important, so I don't want to put it off.

I have two hours to spend with him today. We're planning to pick up food and have a picnic in a park, before I have to catch a bus out of town that leaves from near the park. So the telling will happen in a quiet part of the park. (I made sure it's not a special park to him, or a park he regularly has to do anything in or next to.) Also, posting this is not a concern as a spoiler; he doesn't read mefi.

What do I want to happen here? Well, in the short term I want to cause him as little pain as possible; in the long term I want to stay close with him and keep showing him that I do care about him even though I've made this choice that hurts him.

Somewhat time-sensitive, because I see him today (Wednesday) at 2pm EST.
posted by sparrows to Human Relations (34 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Do it quick, fast and clean. Have your thoughts ready to go. Don't hem and haw. Out with it. Heck, I wouldn't even wait until tomorrow if you can still reasonably reach the person right now.

We're planning to pick up food and have a picnic in a park

No picnic. Just meet the person, pull them aside immediately, and give them the news. If you wait until the picnic spread is all out, you're fucked. If he's packing the picnic goodies in the morning, get to him before he even starts that process.

I always start bad news conversations by acknowledging it's a bad news conversation right off the bat. None of this hoo-ha: "I've been thinking ... this really hurts me to say, but ... "

No, no, no. No equivocation or rationalization or passive-aggressive pleas for sympathy and understanding.

Literally, it's "Listen to me, this is going to be a bad conversation."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:58 PM on March 23, 2010 [62 favorites]

Be straightforward, upfront, and honest. Don't dance around the subject or couch things in niceties. From the way you phrase your question it seems like you're thinking really, really hard how to make this as easy on the other person as possible. At some point all the "I'm so sorry, gosh, this is so hard for you, god I feel like a huge jerk" statements become condescending and self-serving. Just say what you need to say. He'll need comfort, perhaps, but not from you. Don't be a dick, obviously, but I think your problem is you might try to be too nice. Good luck, it's never easy saying difficult things.
posted by missmary6 at 10:59 PM on March 23, 2010

You can minimize the pain by telling him simply and directly, as soon as you meet, and in such a way that its finality is utterly clear.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:59 PM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really doubt that the exact words with which you break the news are as important as you think (provided that you're trying to be nice, which you are). It might make some difference in his immediate reaction, but that might last a few minutes at most. What really matters is the actual facts that you're telling him. Presumably those and their effects will last a lot longer than the words.

This might be a case of worrying about the little things you can control because you can't control the big things that actually matter. So don't overthink it.
posted by k. at 11:00 PM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't mean to discount the advice above, which I think is right. I agree with Cool Papa Bell that trying to make the occasion seem happier than it is will only make it worse.
posted by k. at 11:04 PM on March 23, 2010

Heck, I wouldn't even wait until tomorrow if you can still reasonably reach the person right now
Yes, pick up the phone and give him a call now—but don't do it by text message or IM, whatever you do. I hate to sound obvious and patronising, but so many people on askme seem to have these kinds of conversations textually. Don't be that girl.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:06 PM on March 23, 2010

We're planning to pick up food and have a picnic in a park

It's lovely that you are thinking of the other person's feelings here. However, patiently delivering such bad news over a leisurely lunch may come off as cruel. Were I the recipient of the news in this circumstance, I would stand up, thank you for the picnic, commend you to enjoy the food yourself, and depart to grieve in private elsewhere.

If you know the news, do it now. Let this person get on with their life.
posted by Sutekh at 11:31 PM on March 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

No. I agree with all of this, but don't use a phone. Really. Call and tell him there is bad news ahead of time, that's good, don't leave him expecting a good time and then Wam. But do the actual telling in person, looking him in the eyes, and letting him see your expressions.

A letter is better than the phone, but this kind of thing needs faces.
posted by Some1 at 11:32 PM on March 23, 2010

Yeah, the picnic-thing is cruel. Don't do it.
posted by bardic at 11:34 PM on March 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

Am I the only person in the world who prefers being dumped via phone? The strongest emotion I have after being rejected is the urge to be out of that person's company RIGHT THE FUCK NOW. Personally, I would want you to make an immediate exit after lowering the hammer and get myself home to have a good cry in private but I guess I am the oddball.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:43 AM on March 24, 2010 [14 favorites]

We're planning to pick up food and have a picnic in a park,

If you sit on your bad news for through the whole picking up and eating food process, you're likely to be stressed enough to mess up the telling of it.

If your current arrangement involves going to pick up the food together, drop the bomb before you do that. Set him up for it with a short, attention-grabbing warning. Cool Papa Bell's opener is good. I've used "Can we sit down? I need to tell you something you won't want to hear" to do the same job.
posted by flabdablet at 12:55 AM on March 24, 2010

I agree with all others about the picnic thing being a terrible idea. In the last year I've been broken up with and had a dear friend tell me she was sleeping with the guy I was dating. (Yeah, 2009 was pretty awesome. Hamburger.) Both those things happened over meals, and as soon as I got the bad news, I couldn't eat another bite and wanted nothing more than to leave RIGHT FUCKING THEN. Sadly, my innate unwillingness to make a scene left me sitting there for the rest of the meal, unable to eat, feeling like I'd taken a sandbag to the back of the knees, and trying to make small talk and not break down sobbing in the middle of the restaurant.

This is a spectacularly shitty position to be in, and if you care about this guy at all, you'll give him the bad news and then immediately give him space.
posted by mollymayhem at 1:47 AM on March 24, 2010 [9 favorites]

I want to stay close with him and keep showing him that I do care about him even though I've made this choice that hurts him.

You can want this, of course, but you don't get to control whether it actually goes down this way. The decision you've made is your thing, and you're entitled to it. His reaction to it belongs to him. The picnic and all the over-the-top niceness will come off as you trying to put him in a position where he's not allowed to be upset -- because you're trying so hard to be gentle, because you 'didn't do anything wrong,' because you 'care deeply' about him. Regardless of how much you might care for him, this whole scenario is designed for your comfort, not his.

Not being allowed to have and work through one's own feelings sucks. Don't do that to him.
posted by jon1270 at 3:17 AM on March 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

Straight - to the point and and without any picnic nonsense. Be honest and direct and don't try and present it "kindly".
posted by hotdogcop at 3:34 AM on March 24, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you, I'm really grateful for the responses so far. I forgot to make clear, the picnic is already scheduled (something we planned a while ago) if that matters.

It sounds like I might be overstating the news by comparing it to a breakup -- he has told me equally hard (different) news in the past and we worked through it and are still close. But the consensus I'm getting here so far is that I need to be very careful not to think of myself more than of him. It's hard to see the mechanics of just telling him first thing, since we're meeting on the street in midtown Manhattan and we'll be surrounded by lunchtime noise and traffic til we get to the park. But it sounds like people are recommending I not set up an expectation of peaceful picnic. Should I tell him ahead of time (might be hard to reach him this morning) that we should meet in a different place?
posted by sparrows at 4:34 AM on March 24, 2010

It doesn't really matter how long ago you planned the event. If you're (not breaking up with him, but functionally doing something as painful) you should assume the picnic is off. If you're meeting on the street, then call him and give him the bad news. Then cancel the picnic.

There is no picnic. The picnic is irrelevant.
posted by headspace at 5:26 AM on March 24, 2010 [12 favorites]

Yeah, no picnic. In his state of disappointment, the picnic will likely strike him as manipulative and/or patronizing.
posted by venividivici at 5:42 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

This doesn't strike me as a 'must call him now' sort of emergency; the time for doing that gracefully seems to have passed. So, you're both going to find yourselves in an awkward situation about five hours from now. The key is to take full responsibility for your choices and to provide him the space to have whatever reaction he'll have. Instead of telling him how you want him to feel, tell him how you feel. Something like, "Look, this is awkward but I need to say something. I don't know what the best way to handle it is, but I want to be up-front with you. I've decided to do [X]. I feel bad that I'm telling you this just as we're about to have lunch together, and if you want to skip the picnic, I'll totally understand," would probably work as well as anything else.
posted by jon1270 at 6:05 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I disagree a bit with the chorus advising you to cancel the picnic pre-emptively. If anything, it will ramp up the weightiness of the news. We don't know ahead of time that this guy will be so devastated that he won't be able to sit through a meal, particularly since we don't even know what that news is.

I think its enough to meet him on the street and exchange small talk while you're walking to the park. When you get to the park and its a little quiet, before you get settled for the picnic, do the Cool Papa Bell routine: "Look, I have some bad news. [Insert bad news here]. I understand if you're not in the mood to continue with the picnic and would rather be by yourself; we can always take a raincheck." Then take it from there.
posted by googly at 6:18 AM on March 24, 2010

Response by poster: (Knowing him as well as I do, I know he'll have questions to ask and things to clarify about the news and so he wouldn't want to leave immediately after hearing it -- he's a contained/delayed reaction sort of personality. That's why I wanted a setting where we could be set up to talk, rather than having to find such a setting in the middle of this.)
posted by sparrows at 6:25 AM on March 24, 2010

I think the fast, quick, to the point advice is good. I also wanted to add: If this person wants to dump on you a bit afterwards, be compassionate. When you hurt someone, sometimes they just want to hurt you back. Within reason, this is normal. You don't have to take abuse, but remember, this is coming from a hurting place, not the loving part of them.

I think it's good that you are leaving time for him to ask questions/rant a little. To me, 'unloading' is an important part of coming to terms with bad things that happen. It may not be fun to sit through, but it can help the other person.
posted by Ys at 6:57 AM on March 24, 2010

I am a little confused and it's hard to give advice since I'm not sure what you're even planning on doing.

Are you breaking up with someone with whom you're in a romantic relationship? Yes or no? Or there's news? What kind of news?

In any case...cancel the picnic. People do cancel pre-planned events sometimes and it seems awful to plan a picnic thinking you're going to upset someone. That seems awfully not nice.

Do this on the phone.

Say whatever it is you need to say, let him gather his thoughts and if he still wants to hang out with you, the ball is in his court. Allow him his delay time away from you.
posted by dzaz at 7:19 AM on March 24, 2010

> 'It's a choice I've made that excludes him and favors someone else.'

And that's exactly why this 'picnic' charade needs to be called off.
posted by spaceandtime30 at 7:49 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is this a romantic rejection? I know you said it wasn't a break up, but there are romantic rejections that aren't break ups.

It all depends if you have been up front with him up to this point. If so, the park will work. If you've been, well, stringing him along, I'd just tell him up front and skip the drama of the park.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:58 AM on March 24, 2010

I'm visualising this interaction as follows:

You: "Hey, look at this wonderful picnic spread..."
They: "Yeah, it's great. So, what was it you wanted to say?"
You: "[hurtful rejection], could you pass some strawberries?"
They: "Fuck you and your picnic, GRAR!"

I would not be happy with you about having some really bad news broken to me over a picnic. Sorry.
posted by knapah at 8:31 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm imaging she's telling him she's chosen someone else for the purpose of: room-mate; business partner; travel companion; sperm donor; maid of honor; god parent ... something that means a lot but isn't a break up. For all of these you'd probably want to be alone to digest the news and then have the opportunity to ask questions later. If someone else was favored that means he lost the competition -- which is somewhat humiliating no matter how good the reasons.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 10:28 AM on March 24, 2010

It might be too late for you (oh god, I pray you ditched the picnic plans), but you need to just pick a quiet-ish spot in Midtown and do this thing. It might be on the steps of the plaza at the 51st and 3rd subway stop, or just some outdoor sitting area that lots of buildings in Midtown have. Or pick a quieter avenue (1st-3rd Aves in Midtown East) and start strolling. He can choose to walk with you or leave. But a picnic means togetherness, celebration, good times! If I were this guy, I'd call my friend right after you left and yell, "ARRRRRGH, she took me a motherfucking picnic to let me know that XYZ is happening! Yeah, I know, a picnic." He'll feel delicate and pitied. The picnic will look like an apologetic gesture. Imagine his friend on the phone, imitating your thought process, saying, "Hey, sorry for letting you know that XYZ is happening, but at least I let you know while we're sitting on a blanket eating tuna sandwiches!" And man, if he sits the picnic out, it's almost definitely against his desires. He'll be digging into his deepest inner reserves of courtesy.

So just say the news, whatever it is, and let him know that you will be there to talk, and you can wait if he doesn't want to talk right away.

And again, for the love of god, ditch the picnic. The picnic isn't happening.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:42 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

While I can appreciate being cagey in an AskMe, I think that the bad news situation here is definitely relevent to the advice being given. Telling someone "while you're great, I need to cut you out of my life unless you deal with your drug habit" is not the same as "I don't think I'll be going into the timeshare with you this year, sorry". There are levels of hate-to-break-it-to-you talks, and we have no idea where on the spectrum your problem falls.

That said, you will be meeting this guy in ten minutes. Good luck. My advice now is to give him some space to process this new development in your relationship and let him know that you still love him and want to be friends. Don't call or text him for awhile if he seems really broken up about it.
posted by amicamentis at 10:51 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some1 said: "No. I agree with all of this, but don't use a phone. Really. Call and tell him there is bad news ahead of time, that's good, don't leave him expecting a good time and then Wam. But do the actual telling in person, looking him in the eyes, and letting him see your expressions."

No no no. No no no no no. No, no... no. I've been on the receiving end. Complete with picnic.

He will spend the entire intervening time wondering what is about to happen to him. This is drawing it out, making the experience worse for him. It serves you, not him, because you get to delay having to see his reaction, while trying to make it a happier experience for you in the interim.

I hope you picked up the phone.
posted by matt_arnold at 12:35 PM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

No no no. No no no no no. No, no... no.

Couldn't agree more. Making him wait in confused anguish is cruel. Sounds like that didn't happen, so no harm done, but seriously. Bad advice.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 12:42 PM on March 24, 2010

Noooo picnic. God, I can't imagine much worse than being rejected in some way or getting some bad news then having to clean up a damn picnic before I can get the hell out of there. Tell him in a way where he can leave right away if he wants. Also, do you really want to ruin picnics forever for someone?
posted by ishotjr at 1:26 PM on March 24, 2010

Response by poster: It went okay (and we walked and talked some afterwards). I think I didn't do a good job of asking for the advice I needed here, which was more like, "Given that he and I will definitely need to talk this through for a while, is a park a place that will be okay?"

(And when I say picnic I just mean in the simplest NYC fashion of "let's eat our deli food here in the park where it's nicer & mellower than in the deli where we got it.")

Didn't mean to be coy -- I promise the specifics of the news would've derailed the thread.
posted by sparrows at 3:41 PM on March 24, 2010

Did it turn out the park was a good place to do it? Did he seem at all upset by the way it was handled? I take it you're both still an item?

Sorry to be nosey. I was hoping for more juice.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 6:51 PM on March 24, 2010

Response by poster: It's okay to be nosey, but I think it's too complicated to explain the relationship here in the abstract. I think he thought the park was better than the place he chose for delivering hard news to me last time which was his apartment. :)
posted by sparrows at 5:16 AM on March 25, 2010

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