A new study gives awesome insight into how to break bad news.

Imagine you're getting ready to drop some bad news on someone. Say, breaking off a months-long relationship.

"I'm not sure how to say this," you start. "This has been really great. Dating you has been a lot of fun. You're really wonderful. And—" You roll out a string of platitudes and compliments, dreading and delaying the part that comes next, when you finally say "It's over."

You think you're being nice. Protecting their feelings. You don't want to be coldhearted, right?


Science, however, says there might be a better way.

A new study finds that, in most cases, a much smaller "buffer" before the bad news is actually preferable. According to the people who matter most.

Alan Manning, a professor of linguistics at Brigham Young University, and Nicole Amare, his research partner, were interested in what he calls the "information design" of giving bad news. Quite literally, how much stuff should you say or write before just getting on with it?

The procedure was simple: 145 volunteers were shown two similar but differently worded versions of the same message, side by side, and asked to choose which they found the least objectionable. (Stuff in the vein of, "Your car is being recalled" all the way to "Let's break up" or "You're fired.")

Manning says, in most cases, there was a clear preference for the more concise message.

Participants also mostly responded that clarity and directness were more important than how considerate the message was.

The findings contradict a lot of the previous research, Manning says, which stressed buffers and positivity and silver linings. He says when you just talk to people, you get a different story: "When you ask people if they want the bad news straight-up, they almost always say yes."

If bad-news recipients just want it straight, why do we tend to draw it out?

Manning says it's because we're looking out for ourselves. It's easier and makes us feel better to beat around the bush a little bit.

Turns out, the whole thing is a practical exercise in empathy.

"One of the great challenges of growing up and being a fully functioning adult is being fully aware of other people's needs around you and not just your own," he says.

He hopes the study will help people become better deliverers of bad news, and, ultimately, take better care of each other. He urges us to think critically about how sensitive the message we're delivering is and to respond appropriately. Don't be callous, he says, and blurt out "I'm breaking up with you," before even saying "Hi." But a smaller buffer is almost always appreciated by the recipient.

It's hard to break old habits. It's even harder to be direct. But getting and giving bad news is part of our daily lives. It'll be worth the effort to do it right.

This article originally appeared on 01.09.18


Why should a superintendent get a raise while teachers in the same district struggling to make ends meet see their paychecks flatline — year after year after year?

Teacher Deyshia Hargrave begged the question. Minutes later, she was handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a cop car.

The scene was captured below by YouTube user Chris Rosa, who attended a board meeting for Vermilion Parish Schools in Louisiana.

You can watch Hargrave begin speaking about 33 seconds in. The situation starts becoming contentious around 6:35 minutes. Hargrave is arrested at 8:35, and then walked outside in handcuffs and placed in the back of police vehicle. (Story continues below.)



"We work very hard with very little to maintain the salaries that we have," Hargrave, who teaches middle school language arts, said during a public comment portion of the meeting, stating that she's seen classroom sizes balloon during her time at the school with no increased compensation. "We're meeting those goals, while someone in that position of leadership [the superintendent] is getting raise? It's a sad, sad day to be a teacher in Vermilion Parish."

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