I've been preparing for a job as a customer service agent recently and there's a common topic called "delivering bad news". A bad news can be a delay in order or a delayed payment on the customer's side.

As an example, if I wanted to say that the order wasn't arriving tomorrow as scheduled, but would arrive 3 days later, I would say: "I'm terribly sorry to tell you that, but due to unexpectedly many orders in recent days, your order won't arrive tomorrow, it will arrive in 4 days". But, surprisingly, the tutorials instruct to say: "Due to unexpectedly many orders in recent days, your order won't arrive tomorrow, it will arrive in 4 days". What is more, in one video the speaker said explicitly that we shouldn't tell about being sorry at this point. We should apologise after it if it was company's fault. We shouldn't tell about being sorry at all if it wasn't company's fault; we should do it only after the customer has commented negatively (has shown anger or disappointment) on the bad news.

Surprisingly, I watched equivalents of these tutorials in the medical environment. The doctors should do exactly the same! They don't say "I'm very sorry, but we diagnosed lungs cancer", they just say "We diagnosed lungs cancer". It was a shock to me. Just like customer service agents, they show empathy only later, after the patient's reaction.

I don't understand why taking care about the listener's emotions at the point of delivering a bad news is inadvisable. Could you help me understand it?


1 Answer 1


The short answer — TLDR

The answer to this question within the field of psychology will depend on the psychological approach the answerer is affiliated to.

In short, while a certain amount of empathy is required in both the 2 main lines of thought — after-all, how are you going to be an effective therapist without it? — the way it is to be shown is down to opinion really, and that opinion will drive the policies regarding "I'm sorry..." responses.

With regard to your job as a customer service representative/agent, if you don't want to have problems with your superiors, you should follow the protocol laid down by your employers.

If you feel a different approach should be adopted, maybe you could approach your line-manager for consideration.

With regard to other situations, it is down to opinion.

The full answer

Note: In my answer, there will be talk of therapists and clients. Where the therapist is referenced, this applies to anyone in a position of trust such as a doctor, dentist, customer service representative/manager etc.

There are 2 main approaches in psychology — Psychodynamic and Person-Centered

The Psychodynamic Approach started by Sigmund Freud

As pointed out by Jane Holder (2013), this approach to psychology involves analysis of resistance through ego-defence mechanisms, along with transference and counter-transference as described by Stephanie Cobb for the British Psychological Society (BPS, 2015):

Transference has been defined as ‘the client’s experience of the therapist that is shaped by his or her own psychological structures and past’, often involving ‘displacement onto the therapist, of feelings, attitudes and behaviours belonging rightfully to earlier significant relationships’ (Gelso & Hayes, 1998, p.11). Countertransference describes the therapist’s reaction to the client in terms of both feelings and behaviour.

A psychodynamic theorist will talk about psychological detachment requirements with regard to transference and counter-transference so will advocate total compartmentalisation to separate the lived experiences of the client and the therapist from each other.

The bottom line with the psychodynamic approach is

  • You must only relay the facts pertaining to the situation
  • The client's experience(s) are not yours to own to convey, and you should not be sharing your feelings about the situation with them either.

The downside of the psychodynamic approach

This approach can be seen to be very cold and stand-offish leading to possible feelings of resentment towards the therapist, which can be unnoticed by the therapist due to the detachment with the client's "here and now".

The Person-centered approach started by Carl Rogers

Again, Jane Holder (2013) covers this:

The person-centred approach focuses on the belief that we are all born with an innate ability for psychological growth if external circumstances allow us to do so. Clients become out of touch with this self-actualising tendency by means of introjecting the evaluations of others and thereby treating them as if they were their own.

[In therapeutic environments] As well as being non-directive the counselling relationship is based on the core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.

A person-centered theorist will talk about the need for these core conditions, and therefore will advocate empathy and concern for the client's current well-being. This is sharing the fact that while you still don't pass your feelings about their situation to the client as the experience is not your own, you pass on that you feel sorry for how they are feeling.

The downside of the person-centered approach

As a therapist, you can be so invested in your client's here and now, that you can suffer from too much empathy.

So what SHOULD you do?

In answer to your question with regard to your job, no matter whether your job is a customer service representative/agent or something else, if you don't want to have problems with your superiors, you should follow the protocol laid down by your employers.

If you feel a different approach should be adopted, maybe you could approach your line-manager for consideration.

With regard to other situations, it is down to opinion.

With the fact that psychodynamic approach can be cold and the person-centered approach can lead to excessive empathy in play, a more balanced approach can be employed. That's where the integrative approach comes in.

The Integrative Approach

An integrative theorist will be somewhere in between. As the name suggests, the integrative approach is

a combined approach to psychotherapy that brings together different elements of specific therapies. Integrative therapists take the view that there is no single approach that can treat each client in all situations. Rather, each person needs to be considered as a whole and counselling techniques must be tailored to their individual needs and personal circumstances.

Integrative counselling maintains the idea that there are many ways in which human psychology can be explored and understood - no one theory alone holds the answer. All theories are considered to have value, even if their foundational principles contradict each other - hence the need to integrate them.

With an integrative approach, you can be more psychodynamic when dealing with trauma for example and more person-centered with news of a death in the family. This is so that you can separate yourself from the emotional and empathic elements of dealing with the trauma whilst still having empathy for the client in their current situation.


BPS. (2015). What passes between client and therapist? The Psychologist 28(7) 600-603. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/july-2015/what-passes-between-client-and-therapist

Gelso, C. J. & Hayes, J. A. (1998). The Psychotherapy Relationship: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Wiley. https://www.wiley.com/en-gb/The+Psychotherapy+Relationship%3A+Theory%2C+Research%2C+and+Practice-p-9780471127208

Holder, J. B. (2013). The main counselling approaches: What are they? Counselling Directory https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/what-are-they-comparing-and-contrasting-the-three-main-counselling-approaches

  • $\begingroup$ I think for the OP it's much more likely that just their company does not want to admit fault immediately to reduce the likelihood that customers place the blame on them. I doubt it's informed by any particular school of psychology. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 14, 2021 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause - That is also possible of course $\endgroup$ Mar 14, 2021 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer, Chris. It's quite scientific and I'm very surprised that you compared the job of a customer service representative and a psychotherapist. From what I understood, you suggest not to stick to one scenario. And from what I understood, the scenario I described in my original post is psychodynamic. My question is: why do they choose it? How come it works better when it comes to keeping the client/ patient calm? $\endgroup$
    – musialmi
    Mar 14, 2021 at 18:34

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