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5 Ways to Break Bad News without Actually Lying

Theres good news about the best way to break bad news
Post published by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. on Jul 25, 2015 in Fulfillment at
Any Age
Other than the media, which seems to thrive on stories involving death, destruction
of property, a plummeting economy, or other calamitous events, the majority of us
would prefer to be the bearers of happy news. Youd much rather, Id venture to
guess, reveal to a young couple that the child theyre expecting tests out perfectly
fine than that they will face a lifetime of health challenges with the addition to their
family. Similarly, if youre a supervisor, its much more fun to tell employees that
theyre going to be promoted than that they should expect the pink slip to show up
in their inbox.
As much as we prefer to give happy news, there are times when we have no choice
but to relay messages of doom and gloom. A truly cruel or sadistic person may
relate the bad news with relish, but most of the rest of us would like a way to soften
the blow. In the case of a firing or demotion, you may be tempted to take out your
frustration with this person with a brutal revelation of the many reasons he or she
failed to live up to your expectations. If its a person youve been in a relationship
with, again, unless youve got a great deal of pent-up rage, you want to let the
person down as softly as possible.
That most people have difficulty communicating bad news is reflected in whats
called theMUM effect (keeping mum about undesirable messages). In research
on the MUM effect, Hope Colleges Jason Dibble and colleagues (2015) define bad
news as a message communicating information that is previously unknown to the
receiver, is anticipated to be personally relevant to the receiver, and is perceived by
the delivery agent to be negatively valenced by the receiver (p. 215).
Unfortunately, bad news is psychologically more compelling than good news. It is
also cognitively more engaging, and it takes more time for the listener to process.
Moreover, as tough as it is to hear the bad news, it can be pretty tough on the ones
who have to deliver it. As Dibble et al. note If sharing bad news was in no way
negative for senders, then there would be no reason for senders to report feeling
uneasy, reluctant, and hesitant to share bad news. Indeed, these costs might very
well represent the essence of the MUM effect (p. 216).
Apart from the feelings of empathy with the recipient you may have when you have
to relate that bad news, you may also worry that by being the bad news source,
youre also reflecting negatively on something about yourself. After all, if you hired
the baby sitter whos turned out to be so irresponsible, it suggests that youre not a
very keen reader of danger signals or maybe youre just a bad person to work for. In
relationships, the costs of making a mistake in selecting a partner similarly reflect
on your lack of insight into yourself and your intimate partners.
According to politeness theory, by communicating bad news, youre also
triggering negative face concerns. This means that youre risking making the

other person, and you by extension, look bad. Senders of bad news also fear being
blamed, being put in a bad mood, and of course, causing pain to someone else.
The Hope College researchers conducted two experiments with conditions involving
the delivery of bad vs. good news, and scripted vs. unscripted messages. They
hypothesized that the unscripted bad news messages would take the longest and
would feel the worst to the senders. The bad news that the participants shared was
an intelligence test score revealing the test-taker to have performed more poorly
than the average. The main measure of interest in both experiments was the length
of time it took the senders to deliver their messages.
If it takes a larger chunk of your cognitive resources to relay bad news, then
unscripted bad news messages should take the longest of all to prepare. If
politeness theorys at work, then the script shouldnt speed up the process because
the sender must still confront the notion of making the recipient feel inferior. As it
turned out, politeness theory won out over the cognitive resources explanation
because, regardless of the script condition, bad news traveled more slowly from the
senders lips than the good news.
One more study on bad news provides an additional perspective on the problem of
communicating negative messages. Mirail Universitys Valrie Igier and colleagues
investigated the question of how patients, their families, and health professionals
perceive the process of communicating bad health news. How do patients wish to
be told, how do their families want to hear about their relatives, and how do nurses
believe that doctors should let patients know about a poor prognosis? Using a set of
72 vignettes, Igier and her fellow researchers asked 140 adults and about 50 nurses
and nurses aides to indicate how acceptable it was for physicians to reveal the
truth and under what circumstances.
Among the sample of patients and health care workers, only about one-quarter
preferred that the patient be told the entire truth. Over one-third thought the family
should be told before the patient, one-quarter that it would depend on the situation,
and only the remaining 13% thought the truth should never be told. Clearly, then,
most people would rather hear the truth, even if theyd rather not be the one to
convey the bad news. Furthermore, the importance of family involvement
underscores the role that social support can take in alleviating stressful health
From these studies, it seems that there is no one best way to convey bad news, but
these 5 principles should provide some guidance:
1. Tell at least part of the truth if you think the person needs to hear
it. Whether its a bad health prognosis or the need to let an employee youre firing
know how to avoid getting canned in the future, there are situations when you can
provide help to the person receiving the negative message.
2. Sugar coat it if you think the person cant handle it (its me not you). It
may take you a while to frame the right way to put a positive spin on the bad news,
but it will be worth the investment particularly if the individual seems particularly
vulnerable or fragile.

3. Follow the principles of politeness theory. Its important for you to help your
recipient save face when the bad news involves a potential threat to self-esteem.
You may have to develop a cover story in order to preserve the individuals
reputation to the outside world even while you and the other person know the
actual reasons behind your decision.
4. Take your time to prepare your message. There is more effortful cognitive
processing involved in presenting people with bad news. Make sure you consider
carefully the meaning and possible interpretations of your words. Once certain
words are said theyre impossible to take back, so dont rush into an explanation
just for the sake of getting it over with.
5. Rely on others to help you. Without blaming others or leaving the dirty work
to them, keep in mind the Igier studys findings and consider bringing relevant other
players into the picture. It may be the other members of a work team, an
individuals family, or even someone who can be impartial to provide you, and your
recipient, with moral support.
Letting someone down is never a pleasant prospect, but with these 5 tips, you and
the recipient of your news can move on, knowing that youve worked hard to
maintain the integrity of yourself and your relationship. Perhaps in the future, the
news you give- and receive- will be better as a result.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo(link is external) for daily updates on
psychology, health, and aging. Please join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment
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questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Dibble, J. L., Wisner, A. M., Dobbins, L., Cacal, M., Taniguchi, E., Peyton, A., & ...
Kubulins, A. (2015). Hesitation to share bad news: By-product of verbal message
planning or functional communication behavior?. Communication Research, 42(2),
213-236. doi:10.1177/0093650212469401
Igier, V., Sastre, M. M., Sorum, P. C., & Mullet, E. (2015). A mapping of peoples
positions regarding the breaking of bad news to patients. Health Communication,
30(7), 694-701. doi:10.1080/10410236.2014.898013