5 Ways to Deliver Bad News With a Minimum of Pain

New research reveals why it's so hard, and a path to making it easier.

Posted Jul 25, 2015

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

The media thrives on stories of death, destruction of property, a plummeting economy, or other calamitous events. The rest of us, however, would prefer to be the bearers of happy news. For example, we’d rather tell a young couple that the child they’re expecting tests out perfectly fine than that they will face a lifetime of health challenges. 

Occasionally, though, we have no choice but to relay messages of doom and gloom, and most of us would like to soften the blow. If it’s a person you’ve been in a relationship with (unless you’ve 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 what’s called the MUM effect (“keeping mum about undesirable messages”). In research on the MUM effect, Hope College’s 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. But as difficult as it is to receive bad news, it can also be tough on those who have to deliver it. 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).

You may feel empathy with the recipient of the bad news or worry that, by being the source, you’re also reflecting negatively on something about yourself. After all, if you hired the babysitter who’s turned out to be so irresponsible, it suggests that you’re not a very keen reader of red flags—or maybe you’re just a bad person to work for. In relationships, the costs of making a mistake in selecting a partner could reflect on your lack of insight into yourself and your intimate partners.

According to “politeness theory,” by communicating bad news, you’re also triggering “negative face concerns.” This means that you risk making both you and the other person look bad. You may also fear being blamed, being put in a foul mood, and, of course, simply causing pain to someone else.

The Hope College researchers conducted two experiments with conditions involving the delivery of bad news vs. good news, and scripted vs. unscripted messages. They hypothesized that the unscripted bad news messages would take the longest to deliver 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 theory is at work, then having a script shouldn’t 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, scripted or not, bad news traveled more slowly from the sender’s lips than the good news.

One more study provides additional perspective on the problem of communicating negative messages: Mirail University’s Valérie 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 nurse’s 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, about a quarter preferred that the patient be told first, and be told the entire truth; more than a third thought the family should be told before the patient; a quarter thought it would depend on the situation; and only 13% thought the truth should never be told. Clearly, then, most people would rather hear the truth, even if they’d rather not be the one to convey the bad news. Further, the importance of family involvement underscores the role of social support in alleviating stressful health situations.

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 it’s a bad health prognosis or the need to let an employee you’re firing know how to avoid repeating the trouble in the future, there are situations when you can provide help to the person receiving the negative message.
     
  2. Sugarcoat it if you think the person can’t handle it. (“It’s me not you.”) It may take you a while to frame the right way to create a positive spin, but it will be worth the investment, particularly if the individual seems vulnerable or fragile.
     
  3. Follow the principles of politeness theory. It’s important for you to help the recipient save face when the bad news involves a potential threat to their self-esteem. You may have to develop a cover story in order to preserve the person’s reputation to the outside world, even if 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 they’re impossible to take back, so don’t rush into an explanation just for the sake of getting it over with.
     
  5. Rely on others to help you. Without blaming others or delegating the dirty work, keep in mind the Igier study’s findings and consider bringing relevant other players into the picture. It may be the other members of a work team, an individual’s family, or even someone impartial to provide moral support to both you and the recipient.

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Reference                                                        

  • 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 people’s positions regarding the breaking of bad news to patients. Health Communication, 30(7), 694-701. doi:10.1080/10410236.2014.898013

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015