People Mostly Prefer Bad News To Be Given To Them Straight

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If you’re going to deliver bad news to someone, don’t beat around the bush. That’s the conclusion of a new study that found people would rather you get straight to the point than try to sugar-coat the news, although it does depend on what news you're delivering.

The study was conducted by Alan Manning from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah and Nicole Amare from the University of South Alabama.

In the research, 145 people were given a range of “bad news scenarios”, and for each one they were given two delivery styles. These included being shown signs that tried to relay danger. Some got straight to the point, while others had extra information.

High- and low-buffer signs. Manning/Amare

In another part of the study, participants were given different conversation styles at delivering bad news, such as a break up or a doctor telling a patient they have cancer. Some of these had a “long buffer”, where the deliverer tried to soften the blow. Others got straight to the point.

The participants were then asked to rank the messages they received according to how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific, and reasonable they were. The results showed that people tended to value clarity and directness over other traits.

"An immediate 'I'm breaking up with you' might be too direct," said Manning in a statement. "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."

Example B gets to the point much quicker than A. Manning/Amare

The researchers noted that if you’re on the giving end, it probably feels more comfortable to pad out the announcement. Previous research on delivering bad news has apparently been mixed, but this clearly favors one method.

However, that’s not true in all cases. The team found that if you were trying to change someone’s opinion on something, then a strategic build up can be very important. If you’re ever going to use a buffer, it should be on something that might affect their belief system and ego identity.

“The study results indicate that bad news should not be delivered in the same way in all cases,” Manning told IFLScience. He noted that messages about unpleasant facts need no buffer, those about broken social bonds need a small buffer (a sentence or two), and challenging beliefs needed a paragraph or so.

“People who deliver bad news need to assess what kind of message it is that they’re delivering,” he said. “They shouldn’t buffer the news just to protect their own feelings.”

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