When Giving Bad News, Science Says Give It To ‘Em Straight

I have some bad news to share. Would you like to sit down first? Can I make you a cup of tea? Are you comfortable? What I’m about to say may sting a little…

The warm gestures we make when we have to deliver a crummy message to someone else sure do seem comforting, but new research is telling us most people don’t appreciate this approach as much as other ways of getting the news across. It seems that many people prefer we just spit it out, instead.

Researchers from Bringham Young University and the University of South Alabama have found that many people prefer the “ripping off the Band Aid” method to sugar-coating bad news. In their study, 145 participants were given a variety of disappointing scenarios with two different styles of delivery. They then rated the deliveries on how clear, considerate, direct, reasonable, specific and honest they were, as well as which of those values were most important to them. Clarity and directness came out on top over other values.

Receiving devastating social news (such as a break up or termination from a job) was taken best by the participants when given a slight, but quick buffer, such as “we need to talk” and then leading right into the necessary discussion. Other types of news, such as a doctor giving someone a scary health diagnosis or an emergency responder letting someone know their home is on fire, were also valued when they were direct and to the point.

Some of the surprise over the results could be because the giver of the bad news often has an urge to make the recipient as comfortable as possible—whether or not that’s what the recipient actually wants or needs. “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,” Alan Manning, study author and linguistics professor at BYU, told Science Daily. “But this survey 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.”

The time for support and comfort more likely comes after the bad news is delivered. That’s when it is essential to be a good friend and for the recipient to feel comfortable asking for the help they need. The more quickly and clearly news is delivered, the sooner the affected person can deal with the issue at hand. The next time we have to drop a disappointing news-bomb on someone, beating around the bush isn’t the way to go—give it to ‘em straight.

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