Bad news best served straight to the point, study finds

PROVO, Utah — Just lay it on them. When it comes to delivering bad news, a new study finds that equivocation is simply not a good idea.

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) recruited 145 participants for an experiment on how people react to bad news in various forms.

Women crying together on couch
When it comes to delivering bad news, you’re best off if you don’t beat around the bush and simply get right to the point, a new study finds.

Presented with a number of hypothetical scenarios, participants were asked to evaluate which of two approaches to receiving bad news they liked better, ranking each for how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific, and reasonable they thought them to be.

Through these participant responses, the researchers were able to determine that the most sought qualities for this type of communication were clarity and directness.

Overall, this helped lead the researchers to their conclusion that a straightforward approach to telling someone the bad news is most effective, particularly when the situation involves something physical (e.g., a leak) as opposed to something interpersonal (e.g., a breakup).

When disclosing something uncomfortable of an interpersonal nature, the researchers recommend providing a small buffer (e.g., “We need to talk”) that allows for at least some warning.

Much of the previous research available focuses on how deliverers of bad news can ease their burden, the researchers argue, which doesn’t aid in lessening the doubt and uncertainty of recipients.

“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,” explains lead researcher Alan Manning, a linguistics professor, in a university news release. “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.”

Buffers aren’t completely useless, Manning says, but should be only employed in certain circumstances.

For example, when trying to change someone’s deeply-held opinion on a topic, beating around the bush can actually play to the benefit of both you and the recipient.

“People’s belief systems are where they’re the most touchy,” Manning elaborates. “So any message that affects their belief system, their ego identity, that’s what you’ve got to buffer.”

The study’s findings were presented at the Professional Communication Conference (ProComm) in late July.


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