It's best to deliver bad news in a straightfoward fashion, with little to no sugarcoating, a new study suggests.
The chances are that we've all had - or will have - to deliver some kind of bad news at some point in our lives. Be it announcing a breakup, dismissing an employee, rejecting a proposal, or sharing the news of a negative health outcome, there are, unfortunately, times when we cannot escape being the proverbial messenger.
And when that happens, there's always the question of how the bad news should be delivered. Should you say it as it is, directly, or you should you "blanket" it in comforting words to try to spare the receiver's feelings as much as possible?
New research from Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, and the University of South Alabama in Mobile suggests that it may be best to deliver the blow swiftly - at least, that is how people at the receiving end prefer it.
The researchers recruited 145 participants who were confronted with various scenarios in which they were given different types of bad news, delivered in visual, textual, or verbal form.
In each case, they were confronted with two different kinds of approaches: bad news delivered either straight up or delivered with a "buffer," or something to make the content of the news ostensibly more palatable to the receiver.
Skip the sugarcoating
The participants were asked to rate each negative message according to its level of clarity, how considerate it seemed, and how direct, efficient, honest, and specific it was.
They were also asked to identify which of those communication values were most important for them when receiving bad news.
Clarity and directness were predominantly chosen over other values as being crucial in these tense situations. Yet there were moderate differences between how participants preferred to be given different kinds of bad news.
Negative messages tied to a social relationship, the researchers found, should be delivered straightforwardly yet with a mild buffer as a nod to politeness and consideration toward the person on the receiving end.
"An immediate 'I'm breaking up with you' might be too direct. But all you need is a 'we need to talk' buffer - just a couple of seconds for the other person to process that bad news is coming," Prof. Manning explains.
At the same time, bad news about "physical facts" related to illness or death, for example, or such things as an imminent collision or a house on fire, are best said directly, without a buffer introduction.
This makes perfect sense, says Prof. Manning, given that this kind of news may require immediate action. The information should therefore be transmitted as quickly and with as little "padding" as possible.
"If we're negating physical facts, then there's no buffer required or desired. If your house is on fire, you just want to know that and get out. Or if you have cancer, you'd just like to know that. You don't want the doctor to talk around it."
Prof. Alan Manning
The exception? Targeting belief systems
However, the team admits that there are also some exceptions to this rule. Primarily, if the negative message is intended to change someone's firm opinion, or if it conveys something that is strongly at odds with the receiver's self-perception, then a buffer may be a good idea.
"People's belief systems," says Prof. Manning, "are where they're the most touchy. So any message that affects their belief system, their ego identity, that's what you've got to buffer."
The study authors point out that, although popular opinion and some previous research have long held that negative messages should be delivered with a significant amount of "padding," their study suggests this approach may only be helpful to the news beare, and not to the person on the receiving end.
"If you're on the giving end, yeah, absolutely, it's probably more comfortable psychologically to pad it out - which explains why traditional advice is the way it is," notes Prof Manning.
"But this survey," he concludes, "is framed in terms of you imagining you're getting bad news and which version you find least objectionable. People on the receiving end would much rather get it this way."