Published: 08th October 2017
Buffer your sugar because people prefer their bad news served blunt, finds study
Researchers said that while relationship-related news may require a softer approach, physical news is often best delivered direct and unbuffered
Beating around the bush or trying to soften the blow while delivering bad news may not be a good
idea, say scientists who found that most people prefer directness, candour and very little buffer when receiving such information.
Researchers from the University of South Alabama and Brigham Young University (BYU) in the US offered 145 participants a range of bad-news scenarios, and with each scenario, they were given two potential deliveries. For each received message, they ranked how considerate, direct, clear, efficient, honest, specific and reasonable they perceived it to be. They also ranked which of those characteristics they valued most.
Participants, for the most part, valued clarity and directness over other characteristics. Researchers found that if someone is delivering bad news about a social relationship - think "I am breaking up with you" or "I am sorry, you are fired" - you might prefer they ease into it with the tiniest of buffers. However, the team noted people value directness over an extended and overly polite lead in.
Be blunt: Beliefs are a soft spot in humans, and breaking news that could affect this requires buffering
"An immediate 'I am 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," said Alan Manning, linguistics professor at BYU.
"And when it comes to receiving negative information about physical facts - example "you are dying" or "that water is toxic" - most people want it straight up, no easing in," Manning said. If we are negating physical facts, then there is no"buffer required or desired. If your house is on fire, you just want to know that and get out. Or if you have cancer, you would just like to know that. You do not want the doctor
to talk around it," researchers said.
Previous research and advice on delivering bad news has been mixed, in part because its been shaped in a way that makes bad-news delivery easiest for the deliverer. That has led to buffers that drag out uncertainty for the bad-news recipient, researchers said. Though the buffer in giving bad news is almost always a bad idea, there are cases when it can be valuable - necessary, even, said Manning.
When trying to make a persuasive case for someone to change a firmly held opinion, strategic buildup can play an integral role, researchers said. "People's belief systems are where they are the most touchy," he said. "So any message that affects their belief system, their ego identity, that is what you have got to buffer," Manning said.