The Good Way to Deliver Bad News

Posted on October 12, 2017
Alice Jackson

Some University of South Alabama students and their professor are making national headlines this week with research recommending the best ways to deliver bad news.

Their results and recommendations for minimizing psychological damage when dropping a bombshell on someone were discussed recently by NBC Today host Hoda Kotb, written about by the Washington Post and posted on websites worldwide.

Dr. Nicole Amare, professor of English, surveyed her students inside the classroom and online for eight years, then studied the results with Dr. Alan Manning of Brigham Young University to determine if people:

1. Want bad news about physical situations, such as toxic water, radiation, pesticides in use, or a cancer diagnosis “very directly…blunt without buffer.”

2. Prefer bad news involving social relationships with a one-sentence buffer “to forewarn the listener that bad news is coming.”

3. Only accept longer buffers for bad news if it “directly impacts a listener’s belief system or ego identity.”

“The bottom line is that message creators need to assess the meaning of their message, whether it negatively affects physical facts, social relationships, or ego identity before deciding how much of a buffer the bad news requires,” Amare said.

South students were selected for the testing because they represented a highly diverse group, including “some non-native speakers.” They were asked to respond to both print text messages as well as pictures.

Amare, who teaches technical writing, grammar, history of rhetoric, and composition writing, said other researchers have tested how to deliver bad news, but she and Manning are the first “to say you do sometimes need a buffer, but only in certain types of bad news messages, not with all bad news area.”

She added that their results are already impacting how she teaches her technical writing class.”

“I’m encouraging my students to be more direct, to not have so much buffer…to get to the point,” Amare explained. “The person who uses direct communication is perceived as being more ethical and honest in their communication, and that has a great deal of value.”

Amare and Manning hope to extend their research with more testing.

“I didn’t know how our use of the response to visuals was going to come out, and I do have other questions about that I want to explore,” she said. “We in the United States prefer signage that’s incredibly direct. I’m interested in more cross-diversity response to visuals. I want to see how people in other cultures respond to direct vs. indirect messages in signs.”

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