The best thing to do when giving bad news is to get straight to the point

Right to the point.
Right to the point.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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If you manage anyone, at some point you will have to sit down and deliver a piece of uncomfortable news. You may be tempted to cushion this information with an introduction intended to soften the blow. It’s a charitable impulse, but new research suggests that one of the best things you can do for the person on the other side of the table is to get to the point as soon as possible.

Presented with various examples of bad news, from “your car’s airbag is defective and may kill you” to “your test results suggest you have cancer,” 145 subjects in a recent study preferred direct messages in all cases over ones with long preambles intended to buffer the impact.

Study subjects rated direct messages as clear and efficient when the news was impersonal, such as a car recall. In sensitive situations like breakups or firings, directness was still preferred, buffered by a very short opening statement. But in those difficult conversations, people didn’t just praise directness for its clarity. They also saw it as compassionate.

“Negative messages about social factors were perceived as optimal when there was a very small buffer. This can be just one sentence like ‘We need to talk’ or ‘Our records show you own one of our cars,’” Alan D. Manning, a linguistics and English professor at Brigham Young University and the study’s co-author, told Quartz At Work. And then get to it: “’I’m breaking up with you’ or ‘Your car’s airbag may be defective and may kill you’ should be the very next sentence.”

Giving bad news is stressful, and under stress we’re more likely to make binary, all-or-nothing type decisions—like hiding bad news at the end of a long, anxiety-inducing monologue, or blurting it out coldly, business consultant Ron Carucci warns in a recent piece in Harvard Business Review (paywall). He suggests preparing for the conversation by writing out your message in “clear, nonjudgmental language,” just two or three sentences worth. He adds:

Then deliver the message within the first two minutes of the conversation—no long wind-ups, no small talk to delay or warm up. Use the remainder of the conversation to process what they’ve heard, ask questions, vent, or clarify. Make it about their needs, not yours.