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.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

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"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

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"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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