Home Science The best way to give bad news, according to science

The best way to give bad news, according to science

According to one study, we prefer to be told things directly, without decorations or detours.


No one likes to have to give bad news. For example, you want to end a relationship, but just thinking about telling the other person gets on your nerves because you do not want to hurt him.

You have stayed for dinner with that objective but you spend the first quarter of an hour showing yourself friendly, being tawdry and talking about nouns before daring to get into stuff.

The other way to do it, the correct one, according to a US study: you arrive, you sit down and before the person who is about to be abandoned cannot even consult the menu you say:

“We need to talk”. Thus, without further ado. And, as the authors of the research have discovered, linguist professors Alan Manning of Brigham Young University in Utah and Nicole Amare of the University of Southern Alabama at the time of receiving bad news as the end of a relationship human beings prefer the direct style and the grain, without half-measures, detours or palliatives that pretend to sweeten reality.

The experiment consisted in bombarding the participants with a series of non-pleasant information presented in various visual, textual and verbal forms.

When communicating a negative message about a social relationship (for example, “I want to stop dating you” or “you’re fired“), Manning and Amare found that people appreciated being told frankly and directly, without trying to sweeten it based on educated formulas.

No need to start with “I’m going to break up with you”, it would be too hard, but with a simple “we have to talk” you give the message receiver a few seconds to start processing that they are going to give you bad news.

Denying the facts is useless

Also, if this is about health problems, even something as strong as “you have cancer, you have two months to live,” most individuals prefer to be told bluntly and the most accurate. According to Manning, “denying the facts is no good, if your house is burning, you want to know it so that you can get out.” And if you have cancer, you want to know the truth and not listen to the doctor doing circumlocutions.

During the study, the 145 volunteers who participated received panoply of bad news and negative situations, counted in various ways. Then they had to value every message they received based on their perception of it: whether it was clear, thoughtful, direct, effective, sincere, specific and reasoned. They also scored which of these characteristics valued more.

Most of them preferred clarity and direct style over other features. According to Manning, previous research on the subject and the advice given at the time of bad news were not so conclusive, partly because they were raised according to the one who gives the bad news, to make it easier.

But that creates uncertainty in the receiver of the information.

“From the point of view of someone who has to tell something bad to another person, it is certainly psychologically more comfortable to sweeten and circumvent it, which explains why it was advisable to do so in the first place. The place where you get the bad news and what form to receive it seems less unpleasant, and the reality is that the receivers prefer the direct way, “says Manning.

That does not mean that sometimes the pill must be gilded a little to the depository of the negative information. When the purpose is to persuade someone to change their mind, it is necessary to prepare a strategy of going slowly, because messages that affect a person’s belief system or ideas and their identity and ego are more delicate to present.


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