Man getting fired
When receiving bad news, most people prefer to hear it straight. Savanna Richardson/BYU Photo

Engaging in small talk and beating around the bush before delivering bad news to someone may actually do more harm than good, a new study has found.

In these situations, most people prefer directness, candour, and very little – if any – buffer beforehand, according to the research from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah.

For the study, BYU linguistics professor Alan Manning and Nicolae Amare from the University of South Alabama offered 145 study participants various forms of hypothetical bad news in visual, textual and verbal forms, each delivered in two different ways.

They were then asked to rank how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific and reasonable they perceived the delivery to be and which of these characteristics they valued most.

The results showed that for the most part, participants valued clarity and directness.

When delivering news regarding social relationships – for example firing or breaking up with someone – "an immediate 'I'm breaking up with you' might be too direct," said Manning. "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."

But when it comes to receiving negative information about physical facts – e.g. 'you're dying' or 'that water is toxic' – most people prefer the news to be delivered straight away, with no buffer.

"If we're negating physical facts, then there's no buffer required or desired," Manning said. "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."

"If you're on the giving end, yeah, absolutely, it's probably more comfortable psychologically to pad it out – which explains why traditional advice is the way it is," he 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."

There are, however, some situations where delivering bad news gently may be valuable or even necessary, according to Manning. For example, when you are trying to make a persuasive case for someone to change a firmly held opinion, strategic build-up can play to your advantage.

"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."