Delivering bad news can be challenging. However, making small talk and beating around the bush will not help. The best way to deliver bad news is to just spit it out.
A recent study by professors at Brigham Young University and the University of South Alabama discovered that when it comes to bad news, people want to hear it straight up, with very little, if any, buffer.
In the study, BYU linguistics professor Alan Manning and South Alabama’s Nicole Amare analyzed a group of 145 students who received bad news in a variety of scenarios. After each scenario, participants shared how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific and reasonable they felt each delivery to be. In addition, they also ranked which type of delivery they preferred — most agreeing that above all, clarity and directness were the most important.
While the professors found that for the most part, people wanted to hear things straight up — in some scenarios the slightest bit of polite buffering was helpful. In social situations like a breakup or a layoff, people preferred a tiny amount of a polite buffer to break the news.
“An immediate ‘I’m breaking up with you’ might be too direct,” BYU’s Manning explained. “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.”
Yet, when it comes to bad news involving facts — just rip the Band-Aid and get to the point. “If your house is on fire, you just want to know that and get out. Or if you have cancer, you’d just like to know that. You don’t want the doctor to talk around it,” Manning said.
When you’re the person delivering the news, buffers might feel helpful in breaking the ice, but that’s not how people on the receiving end feel. “If you’re on the giving end, yeah, absolutely, it’s probably more comfortable psychologically to pad it out,” 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.”