New research has found that when it comes to receiving bad news, most people prefer directness, candor, and very little — if any — buffer.
For the study, conducted by Brigham Young University linguistics professor Dr. Alan Manning and the University of South Alabama’s Dr. Nicole Amare, participants were offered various forms of hypothetical bad news.
The researchers found that if someone is delivering bad news about a social relationship — think “I’m breaking up with you” or “I’m sorry, you’re fired” — people value directness over an extended and overly polite lead in.
“An immediate ‘I’m breaking up with you’ might be too direct,” said Manning. “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.”
And when it comes to receiving negative information about physical facts, such as “you’re dying” or “that water is toxic,” no buffer is required or desired, according to Manning.
“If your house is on fire, you just want to know that and get out,” he said. “Or if you have cancer, you’d just like to know that. You don’t want the doctor to talk around it.”
For the study, 145 study participants received a range of bad-news scenarios, and with each scenario, they were given two potential deliveries.
For each message, they ranked how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific, and reasonable they perceived it to be. They also ranked which of those characteristics they valued most.
Participants, for the most part, valued clarity and directness over other characteristics, according to the study’s findings.
Previous research and advice on delivering bad news has been mixed, in part because it’s been shaped in a way that makes bad news delivery easiest for the deliverer, said Manning. And that has led to buffers that drag out uncertainty for the recipient.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Though the buffer in giving bad news is almost always a bad idea, there are cases when it can be valuable — even necessary, Manning said.
When trying to make a persuasive case for someone to change a firmly held opinion, strategic buildup can play an integral role.
“People’s belief systems are where they’re the most touchy,” he said. “So any message that affects their belief system, their ego identity, that’s what you’ve got to buffer.”
Source: Brigham Young University