Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. When you're on the giving end, sugarcoating might feel helpful in breaking the ice or make you feel more comfortable ruining someone's future. We end up trying to cushion the blow with a little small talk and circumlocution. What ensues is probably bewilderment, even denial, on the receiver's end, and you end up making a hack job out of it.
A recent study by professors at the Brigham Young University (BYU) and the University of South Alabama found that when you're delivering with bad news, the best thing to do is to just spit out.
BYU's linguistics professor Alan Manning and South Alabama's Nicole Amare analysed 145 students who received bad news in a variety of scenarios. Participants then shared how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific, and reasonable they felt each delivery was, and ranked which type of delivery they preferred. Turns out most people wanted their bad news straight up, with very little, if any, buttering up. When it came down to it, they valued clarity and directness above all else.
And that's completely relatable. People pick up on when they're being buttered up for bad news—it only amps up their anxiety. Why make a person go paranoid waiting for you to get the point just because you can't find the right words? Some might even call it manipulative.
But should foregoing all niceties always be your modus operandi? Yes, excluding certain scenarios. When it comes to a break-up or a lay-off, people prefer a tiny amount of a polite buffer. Manning explains, “An immediate 'I'm breaking up with you' might be too direct. 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.”
While that's makes sense in many ways, when it comes to bad news regarding facts, especially those that affect your wellbeing, it might be better to just let the Band Aid rip. “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 says.
But those with a predilection to start-with-a-positive feel otherwise. Dr Robert Buckman, a medical oncologist who currently teaches IBM execs, amongst others, how to share bad news, advises you shouldn't get right down to it.
His protocol starts off by listening. Ask open-ended questions about how the other person is feeling, how their day is going, etc, and then get to the news. You could use a word or phrase they finished with to show you were sincerely listening.
Dr Buckman also suggests asking for their perspective first. If you're going to give your employee a bad review, a good way to broach the subject would be to start by asking what they think of their own performance.
Other experts say it's not the wording, but the tone that matters to the receiver. A study by Saarland University in Germany that analysed 400,000 employment tribunal cases (half of which had to do with lay-offs) found that employees were much likelier to react aggressively when their managers spoke to them aggressively.
And if you're still not sure what do, simply imagine yourself in their shoes: would you prefer the quick-and-dirty or have them tell you softly? You'll find the direction you need.
Amiya is In-charge of the career publication of The Daily Star.