The art of sharing the bad news How do we  deliver a bad or shocking news to someone close to us? How can we honestly tell the news and at the same time minimise the damage caused to the other person?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to the science of bad news, according to senior journalist Christopher Ingraham writing in Washington Times. The indirect approach says that we should soften the impact of the sad news by padding it with an “explanatory buffer.”  We can first  introduce the topic, offer the reasons for the painful decision and then convey the sad news.  In the direct approach we should first say the bad news openly and then reflect on it later, if there is a need for it. The mitigating and relating factors can be said only after the initial impact is felt.

A scientific study offers  practical advice on how to “minimise the psychological damage you inflict when you drop your bombshell.” Professors Alan Manning of Brigham Young University, together with Nicole Amare of the University of South Alabama, conducted a study to 145 undergraduate students about sharing bad-news related to emotional breakup or medical emergencies.

In one case, they asked participants to imagine that they had been dating a person they liked for about a month. They were then asked which of the two scenarios described above would be “least bothersome” to them. Here 74 per cent of the participants preferred the direct approach to getting dumped. They may feel the pain, but they can take it better if the news is clear and straight-forward.

In the case of getting news about cancer diagnosis, respondents showed similar preferences. Actually 64 per cent said they’d prefer to receive bad medical news through the direct approach.

Ingraham  says that the study found that when receiving bad news related to their health or safety, people want to get the information straight-up. “If your house is on fire, you just want to know that and get out,” study author Manning. “Or if you have cancer, you’d just like to know that. You don’t want the doctor to talk around it.”

And when it comes to face-to-face bad news, the study suggests that people don’t want you to beat around the bush too much. “Don’t tell the person you’re dumping how great they are and how much you love their cat — just tear the Band-Aid off. Don’t tell the employee you're firing how valued their work is and how challenging a time this is for the company — just give it to them straight and tell them where to go from here,” suggests Ingraham.

Interestingly, Manning suspects that people delivering bad news opt for a more indirect, sugarcoated approach because it’s easier for themselves. “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 added: “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 the news directly.

It’s worth noting that Manning’s study relies on individuals’ self-reports of how they’d prefer to receive bad news. Further, Manning cautions that a bad-news-giver also wouldn’t want to blurt it out too unexpectedly. He suggests that we need to preface it with the smallest of buffers, “just a couple of seconds for the other person to process that bad news is coming.”

We need to develop the art of sharing sad news gently and firmly, giving preference to the victim’s perspective. Obviously the victim needs support, but too much of sugar-coating may be harmful, providing them with false hope.

 (The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)

Kuruvilla Pandikattu