Planning on dumping a partner, firing an employee or otherwise delivering bad news to someone this week? A new Brigham Young University study offers advice on how to minimize the psychological damage you inflict when you drop your bombshell.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the science of bad news. One holds that you should soften the impact of the news by padding it with an “explanatory buffer,” laying out the case for what you're about to say before you actually say it. Conversely, other research has found that you should just tear the Band-Aid off, delivering the bad news first and saving your commentary for afterward.
Professors Alan Manning of Brigham Young University and Nicole Amare of the University of South Alabama wanted to untangle part of this apparent contradiction. To do that, they administered a study to 145 undergraduates that involved A/B testing of a number of bad-news scenarios — such as warnings about physical danger and news of a bad medical diagnosis.
For instance, in one of the experiments, they asked participants to imagine that they had been dating a person they liked for about a month and that they met up with that person in a cafe. They were then asked which of the two scenarios would be “least bothersome” to them.
In this case, 74 percent of the participants preferred the direct approach to getting dumped. Note that in the indirect scenario, the dumper is so passive as to make the dumpee actually come out and say that the relationship is ending — this is a big no-no, according to Manning and Amare's research.
Respondents showed similar preferences when it came to getting bad medical news — in this case, a cancer diagnosis.
Sixty-four percent said they'd prefer to receive bad medical news through the direct approach.
In general, the study found that when receiving bad news related to their health or safety, people want to get the information straight-up. “If your house is on fire, you just want to know that and get out,” study author Manning said in a release. “Or if you have cancer, you’d just like to know that. You don’t want the doctor to talk around it.”
And when it comes to face-to-face bad news, the study suggests that people don't want you to beat around the bush too much either. Don't tell the person you're dumping how great they are and how much you love their cat — just tear the Band-Aid off. Don't tell the employee you're firing how valued their work is and how challenging a time this is for the company — just give it to them straight and tell them where to go from here.
Manning suspects that people delivering bad news often opt for a more indirect, sugarcoated approach because it's easier for them, not for the person they're talking to. “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 in a news release. “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” — that is, direct, with minimal padding.
It's worth noting that Manning's study relies on individuals' self-reports of how they'd prefer to receive bad news. That may or may not accurately line up with how people react to actually getting bad news. It's one thing to say you'd rather get dumped in a straightforward manner, but you may have different feelings when your partner sits you down in a cafe to tell you it's over.
Manning also cautions that a bad-news-giver also wouldn't want to blurt it out unexpectedly. “An immediate 'I'm breaking up with you' might be too direct,” he said. You need to preface it with the smallest of buffers, “just a couple of seconds for the other person to process that bad news is coming.”
For that, Manning suggests using the four most ominous words in the English language: “We need to talk.”