A new study from Brigham Young University, Utah, has confirmed that you shouldn’t beat about the bush when delivering bad news.
Psychologists looked at the best way to deliver bad news, and found that most people prefer directness. In fact, pussyfooting around just prolongs the agony.
Speech is less than half of communication – you don’t need a degree in psychology to know when someone’s flirting with you or when you’re in a threatening situation. Neither do you need to be an expert in body language to know when there’s something wrong – subtle facial expressions nearly always give the game away, along with tone of voice. People get naturally apprehensive when faced with an extended or overly preparatory lead in.
In the case of a break-up, psychologists advise that a simple ‘we need to talk’ is enough of a buffer to soften the blow because just a few seconds gives the other person a chance to process the idea that bad news is about to be announced. A direct ‘I’m breaking up with you. Goodbye. Loser’ is perhaps a little harsh, although it has been known to work – as has the expression ‘it’s not me it’s you. See you around.’ Some kind of warning will lessen the shock. ‘Can you give me a hand with these suitcases?’ might be better.
The same applies when telling people they are being made redundant. Workers tend to resent preambles about ‘a chance to explore new opportunities.’ Most soon-to-be ex-employees find such platitudes meaningless and patronising. The more the axeman talks, the less likely it is the employee will be to understand and accept the finality of their situation.
But when it comes to receiving negative information about imminent danger – for example ‘I think someone has put something in your drink’ people need the information immediately. They don’t need a buffer to process bare facts, especially when they might protect them from harm. If there’s a fire, people need the information quickly so they can get out without delay.
Believe it or not, the same directness applies when telling someone they have a terminal disease. Patients don’t like it when doctors try to talk around it.
145 participants took part in the study, and each received a range of bad-news scenarios. They were given two types of delivery for each and for each received message, they ranked how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific and reasonable they perceived it to be. They also ranked which of those characteristics they valued most.
For the most part, participants valued clarity and directness. But those giving the news felt more comfortable psychologically if they padded it out. This explains why when we deliver bad news, we often buffer it with small talk.
However, there are cases when buffering can be valuable, such as when trying to make a persuasive case to change others’ firmly held beliefs or opinions and where a strategic build-up is also part of the argument.
For most people, personal beliefs are a sensitive minefield. Any message that challenges that belief system needs a certain amount of buffering otherwise they will turn away.
So… tell ‘em straight… with just a little sugar coating. It’s probably the best way after all.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.