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Bad news – give it straight
October 15, 2017, 4:08 pm

A new study by researchers Brigham Young University in the US, shows that when it comes to receiving bad news, most people prefer directness and candor, with very little buffer.

The researchers found that most people value directness over an extended and overly polite lead in to the bad news.  If someone is delivering bad news about a work-related or social relationship — think "I'm sorry, you're fired" or "I'm breaking up with you" — the recipient of the news might prefer they ease into it with a small buffer, such as, “We need to talk”, which would give them the few seconds needed to process that bad news was coming.

But when it comes to receiving negative information about physical facts, such as “you’re dying” or “the water is toxic”, most people want it straight up without any easing in. "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," said the research team

For the study, 145 participants were offered varied forms of hypothetical visual, textual and verbal bad news. With each bad-news scenario, they were given two potential deliveries. They then ranked each received message on how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific and reasonable they perceived it to be. They also ranked which of those characteristics they valued most. The study found that participants, for the most part, valued clarity and directness over other characteristics.

Previous research and advice on delivering bad news has been mixed, mainly because it had been shaped in a way that makes bad-news delivery easiest for the deliverer, which led to buffers that dragged out uncertainty for the bad-news recipient. The new survey was framed in terms of the recipient of bad news and which version they found least objectionable. The study found that people on the receiving end prefer to get it straight.

Though the buffer in giving bad news is almost always a bad idea, there are cases when it can be valuable, even necessary. For instance, when trying to make a persuasive case for someone to change a firmly held opinion, strategic buildup can play an integral role. People are touchy about their belief systems, so any message that affects their belief system or their ego identity, needs to be buffered, concluded the researchers.

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