A few years ago my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. The day the doctor delivered the news, he looked her straight in the eye and told her she had two tumors at the base of her skull that needed to be removed. At the time, my mother was in her early 70s. Though she was a healthy and active woman, and had been her whole life, the idea of undergoing invasive surgery seemed dicey. Surgery at any age is not without its risks.
"Is there any way my mother can avoid having her skull cut open," I asked.
"No," the doctor replied.
"What would you do if this were your mother," I asked.
"I'd schedule her for surgery tomorrow," he said.
I trusted my mother's neurosurgeon. He was a straight shooter. Whatever questions were asked, he answered. He never pussyfooted around a difficult issue, even if the prognosis was grim. I liked that about him.
Turns out, I'm not alone in my predilection for directness. New research from Brigham Young University shows that when it comes to receiving bad news, most people prefer directness, candor and very little -- if any -- buffer.
Researchers Alan Manning, of BYU, and Nicole Amare, of the University of South Alabama, surveyed 145 people and found that, for the most part, people value clarity and directness over politeness and sidestepping.
Manning and Amare found that if someone is delivering bad news about a social relationship -- think "I'm breaking up with you" or "I'm sorry, you're fired" -- direct is best.
In business, it's no secret communication ranks among many an organization's top challenges. For managers, it's hard to know what to say when they have to let a worker let go, or a facility closes down, or tell an employee they were turned down for a promotion. The immediate impulse may be to tip-toe around the issue to soften the blow. They are human, after all. But research says that would be the wrong thing to do.
Easing into bad news with small talk or polite conversation might seem like a good segue but, actually, the opposite is true. Research found that people value straight talk over a long and drawn-out lead-in.
"An immediate 'I'm breaking up with you' might be too direct," said Manning in this interview. "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."
The same holds true for delivering a negative diagnosis. People prefer that the messenger not beat around the bush.
"If we're negating physical facts, then there's no buffer required or desired," Manning said in the interview. "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."
Which explains why I hold my mother's doctor in such high regard. Not only is he a brilliant neurosurgeon who oversaw my mother's (now complete) recovery, he trusted we could handle the news, however difficult it was to hear.
Not surprisingly, many employees say they too want their bosses and colleagues to tell them what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear - as long as it's done with professionalism and decorum. Of course, that may sound like the obvious approach but in many cases it's not, which is one of the reasons why delivering bad news is so hard.
As researchers note, advice on how to break bad news thus far has been a mixed bag. Previous studies and advice tended to focus on the messengers and their feelings. Not on the receivers and their preferences.
"If you're on the giving end, yeah, absolutely, it's probably more comfortable psychologically to pad it out," Manning said. "But this survey is framed in terms of you imagining you're getting bad news and which version you find least objectionable. People on the receiving end would much rather get it this way."
Which is not to say that just because someone prefers to receive bad news directly, there is no room for sensitivity or decorum. Or that strategic lead-ins aren't valuable -- or necessary -- in some cases. As researchers point out, buffers can be effective if you're trying to persuade someone with a fixed view on something to see things your way.
"People's belief systems are where they're the most touchy," he said. "So any message that affects their belief system, their ego identity, that's what you've got to buffer."