How to deliver bad news with dignity

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Your palms are sweating and your voice stutters as you find the right words to soften the blow – there’s never an easy way to deliver bad news.

Nobody likes to be told they’ve lost their job, a relationship has ended or, worst of all, that a loved one has died.

But experts suggest that there is at least a better way to convey a negative message and it may not be what you think.

Professor Alan Manning, a professor of linguistics at Brigham Young University in Utah, argues that while it may seem counter-intuitive, recipients of bad news normally prefer directness and candour, with very little small talk to cushion the impact.

Professor Manning and his colleague Nicole Amare, a professor of English at the University of Alabama, carried out a research study last year that revealed that when presented with different scenarios of receiving bad news, people preferred either no or only a small buffer to shield them.

Direct delivery?

The study involved 145 participants who received a range of bad news case studies, including death, job loss and break-ups. For each scenario, they were given two potential deliveries, and for each message they ranked how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific and reasonable they perceived it to be. For the large part, participants were found to prefer clarity and directness.  

Professor Manning said they undertook the research after noticing that there was a collection of conflicting advice and research on how to deal with bad news.

However, according to the data from Manning’s study, people generally do not appreciate sugar-coating.

Directness is required in particular if the negative information involves physical facts, or dangers like corrosive substances, or harmful conditions.

When it comes to negative information about social relationships then directness is still highly valued, but the study participants preferred a small buffer, for the sake of politeness.

The best strategy

“The best strategy is to ask yourself as you realise that you need to deliver some bad news, whether this is a matter of just a physical situation that is not particularly under anyone’s control,” said Manning.

“If it’s a physical situation, a question of what is and what happened, apart from the choices of any participant then, according to our data, you can afford no buffer, you can just say this terrible thing is happening,” he pointed out.

“For example, on signage, where you think you can go down this hall, but you shouldn’t because there’s radiation down that way,” he said.

“If it’s a situation where it’s just a physical fact of the world then people tend to be less positive about your message if you do buffer it because if feels as if you’re dancing around the issue and that’s the main thing that we want to avoid.”

Using a buffer

However, the length of the buffer varies depending on the type of bad news that needs to be broken. For a normal course of events where the negative information doesn’t involve a person’s identity, for example, ending a dating relationship, a tiny buffer is the preferred option.

“Like a sentence but no more. If the buffer goes on longer it starts to be viewed negatively. I think it’s in this area that people tend to make the mistake because they’ll prolong that buffer in order to preserve their own feelings but all that this does is irritate the listener because they sense the bad news coming before it’s delivered,” said Manning.

The buffer needs to lengthen a little if bad news involves some kind of social bond, or a person’s identity. For example, if you have to terminate someone from their job, or if you’re breaking up with a long term partner.

Bad news involving employees

“It changes if the listener is heavily invested, then you may need a bigger buffer,” he said. “If you are accountants dealing with people’s bank accounts, then the money they have or they don’t have is probably part of their identity.”

Manning believes the research proves that the standard long-standing advice on how to deliver bad news, particularly in the workplace, is misguided.

“If you look at the business communication textbooks, the standard advice is to put a considerable buffer, like a paragraph, ahead of the bad news if it’s in writing and according to our data that’s usually bad advice,” he warned. “That buffer paragraph seems like a person is stalling and that’s perceived negatively.”

Hypothetical layoffs at a company in trouble, where bad news involved employees’ identities, was one particular scenario that the researchers looked into in detail. Again, they found that a short buffer worked better than a prolonged run up to the news.

“You want to have some buffer. No buffer is unacceptable under those circumstances but a short one tends to work as well as a longer one. You can partly deflect the effect by making it a matter of physical fact,” said Manning.

“If you construct it as physical fact bad news, which it often is – sales are down, we simply don’t have the money to stay in business the way we have been, and so we have to lay off some people – if it’s framed in those terms then you don’t need a terribly long buffer,” he argued.

Consider people’s feelings

And although the study did not detail the type of language that should be used, Manning recommends avoiding condescension while still trying to respect people’s feelings.

“It’s important to be genuine and it’s important to be honest and direct about the reasons for the negative news. As much as possible after the bad news, the explanation should be grounded in the facts of the situation,” he said.

The professor hopes that the ground-breaking study will positively impact how people interact with each in other in difficult situations.

Delay tactics

“People have come and told me that their first impulse is to delay the bad news in a conversation or in writing, but after reading our article they decided just to go right to it, or just get to it after a preparation sentence and the reports are that this works,” he said.

“So in general practical terms this would be my hope; that people would rethink the amount of buffer they’re going to apply to bad news, and to favour directness a little more for the sake of the person getting the news and to worry about protecting their own feelings a little less.”

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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