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Why starting with the "bad news" first might be best, according to science

Maybe softening the blow isn't always the best option

Why starting with the "bad news" first might be best, according to science
Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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 study from 2017 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.

Photo by Joanna Nix-Walkup on Unsplash

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 10.13.17

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