ESP and Communicating Bad News  

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

A couple of years ago, I heard the following ESP story related to the global financial crisis. An ESPer had been conducting language training in a company when his students asked him to teach them how to communicate bad news. The students explained to the teacher that the shares of stock that they had sold to their client for a pension fund had dropped in value from 100 dollars per share to 7…not to 7 dollars per share but to 7 cents per share! In this TESOL Blog post, I will address the issue of communicating such bad news.

Insights from professional communication research

As ESPers, we can gain insights (into communicating bad news) from professional communication research across a wide range of industries. Consider Maynard’s (1989) perspective-display sequence in the conversation of medical doctors. Maynard was investigating a strategy that a doctor used to give an opinion. The first step in such a “perspective-display sequence” is for the doctor to obtain the opinion of the other person. Then the doctor gives his own opinion in a way that incorporates the opinion of the other person. The specific way that the doctor does this is explained in the article. Another example is Sarangi, Bennert, Howell, and Clarke (2003). The scholars were looking at “risk communication in the healthcare setting.” They were specifically focused on “counseling for predictive genetic testing.” It is interesting to read how the counselors and clients manage the risk being discussed.

Two professionals

In addition to reading publications about professional communication research findings, we can talk to those professionals with experience communicating bad news in an effective manner. In this context, “in an effective manner” means in a way that satisfies the various stakeholders. I had the opportunity to talk recently with two such Japanese professionals. (Note: They both gave me permission to share their stories. I told them that they would not be identified.)

The medical doctor
I spoke with a medical doctor in Japan who specializes in providing care to the elderly. He told me that the bad news he has to give is based on a diagnosis of cancer. His strategy for communicating that bad news depends on the condition of the patient. If the patient has dementia, he does the following two-step process:

  1. he speaks with the family first, and then
  2. he speaks with the patient together with the family. (The family may not want him to speak with the patient.)

If the patient can think clearly and is not frail, he only does step two above; he speaks with the family and the patient together. He presents relevant data and makes recommendations. He has dealt with more than 100 such cases, and his advice has been accepted over 80 percent of the time. The reason for acceptance, according to him, is that there are relatively few options for treating the elderly. If his advice is not accepted, it may be because of disagreements among family members about the type of support (financial and physical) that can be provided by the family members themselves.

The company manager
I also spoke with a Japanese manager who worked for a global company based in the U.S.A. He said that he had to act as the middleman between headquarters and his Japanese clients. He said that his Japanese clients always demanded an explanation for a problem of any size. They wanted to know “why” the problem happened, whereas most other customers would not worry about such small things when the problem was solved. He needed to be honest, but he couldn’t explain specific details to his clients. So what was his solution in one situation? The reason for the problem was explained to be “human error.”

In view of the above, how would you have addressed the drop in stock value problem introduced in the first paragraph of this blog post? What would you have told the students? My approach would have been to first consider the desired outcome. What outcome did the students want to obtain through their communication of such bad news? Then we could have explored options for obtaining the desired outcome that incorporated the views of multiple stakeholders. However, given the amount of legal risk that seemed to be involved, I would have most likely recommended that the students contact their legal department. (As ESPers, it is good to recognize our limits of expertise. I am not a lawyer.)

Do you have any suggestions for communicating bad news? Let us all know!

All the best,


About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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One Response to ESP and Communicating Bad News  

  1. Azizah says:

    I think that giving bad news is something that has to be tailored very carefully to the context and that a certain degree of knowledge of the recipient is required. It is extremely difficult to communicate bad news “effectively” (that is, in a way that it will be accepted) to strangers, but even in those cases, there are many details that a person can pick up about their audience just in a moment. In cases where you have more experience working with someone, you might understand their personality and their situation (economic, family, religious, etc.) and the identities that you need to engage in order to communicate effectively. Still, giving bad news is never easy.

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