Practical English: Responding to bad news

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I’m so sorry to hear that.

Say “I’m so sorry to hear that” when you hear about sickness, death, divorce, job loss, financial trouble, big disappointment, and other serious problems or pieces of bad news that can make a person very sad.

  • “My father’s in the hospital. The doctors say he only has about a month left.”
    “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

That must have been awful.

Say “That must have been awful.” when someone tells you about a bad experience they had. This phrase can be use for a serious bad experience (like the first example) or a less serious bad experience (like the second example):

  • “After the accident, I couldn’t work for two months, and I got really depressed because I felt so useless.”
    Wow. That must have been awful.”
  • “I had to wait in line for three hours at the bank today – and there was no air conditioning.”
    “That must have been awful!”

An alternative (only used in more serious situations) is

“It must have been really hard for you.”

  • “It must have been really hard for you to have two deaths in the family within a year.”

Oh no…

You can say “Oh no…” as an initial reaction to bad news. It’s common to say “Oh no” and then another one of the phrases:

  • “My sister just got the results of the tests – she has cancer.”
    “Oh no. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
  • “My computer crashed, and I lost all my data.”
    “Oh no – that stinks.”

“That stinks” is usually used when something is annoying, not sad.

If the bad news is surprising or funny, you can say “Oh no!” as an exclamation.

  • “I was talking about how much I hated the name ‘Shelby,’ and then I found out that it was their daughter’s name.”
    “Oh no! What did you do?”
To react to the bad news and ask for more information, you can say “Oh no, really?”
  • “What are you doing here? I thought you were on vacation!”
    “We had to cancel our trip because my daughter got sick.”
    “Oh no, really?”
    “Yeah, she’ll be OK, but she’s really disappointed she couldn’t go to Disneyland.”

That’s rough

We generally say “that’s rough” to respond to bad news that is difficult or unfortunate, but not very emotional:

  • “I’m going to have to work overtime every day this week.”
    “That’s rough.”
  • “Our dog died yesterday. We’re all devastated – he was like a member of the family.”
    “That’s rough” – incorrect, because this bad news is emotional.
    “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Anytime you need to talk, just call me.

Say this if you want to offer to listen to your friend. It’s common to use this phrase when someone is going through a current difficulty.

  • “My husband and I have been arguing a lot lately. It’s gotten so bad that I hate going home every day after work, because I know we’ll probably have a fight.”
    “I’m really sorry to hear that. Anytime you need to talk, just call me.”

It’s also common to use this phrase not as a direct response to bad news, but instead as a form of “goodbye” at the end of a conversation after bad news was discussed.

If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.

Say this if you want to offer help:

  • “I’m so stressed out. I have a million things to do and not enough time in the day.”
    If there’s anything I can do, just let me know, OK?”

When responding to bad news, the tone of voice (the emotion when you speak) is important in how you say these phrases. Don’t say them in a happy or excited way. Instead, speak in a quiet, compassionate way to show that you care about the other person’s feelings.

Learn more: 10 responses to “thank you”

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