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Why You Should Say What You Mean

by Katie Moritz
October 25, 2017 | Love

We might think we're doing people a favor by easing into difficult topics, both at work and in our private lives. But indirect communication is actually not what most people prefer.

Say What You Mean rewire pbs

New research into how we communicate shows that, when it comes to tough talks of any kind, being direct is the better bet.

Researchers Alan Manning of Brigham Young University and Nicole Amare of the University of South Alabama presented a range of bad news scenarios to 145 people. In each scenario, the participants were given two different deliveries, and asked to rate how clear, considerate, direct, efficient, honest, specific and reasonable the deliveries were. They also ranked those characteristics by what they value most.

Clarity and directness of the bad news delivery won out over other qualities, the researchers found. That contradicts a traditional, "standard view about negative messages of all kinds," which says "if you have to give bad news you want a paragraph of neutral information first," Manning said to Rewire.

In most cases, we prefer to cut to the chase.

Breaking up is hard—don't make it harder

When the bad news you're delivering is about the end of a personal relationship—like if you're trying to break up with someone—it's normal to want to soften the blow.

Add a little buffer at the beginning of those difficult conversations, but don't go overboard, the researchers warn. Be as kind as possible, but don't talk politely about other things for 10 minutes while you get up your nerve.

Say What You Mean rewire pbs

All the recipient needs and wants is a few seconds to get into a serious headspace. The classic "we need to talk" works just fine.

“An immediate ‘I’m breaking up with you’ might be too direct,” Manning said in a news release about the research. “But 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.”

It might feel better to drag it out longer, but that's really only serving to make you feel more comfortable and soothe your guilt about hurting the other person, the researchers believe.

"If it goes on longer than a sentence, it becomes less good, people like it less," Manning said to Rewire. "To go on for several paragraphs before you get to the point—also not ideal."

The recipient of the bad news is picking up on social cues and catches on that bad news is coming, he said. That the conversation is being drawn out unnecessarily is irritating.

Other research and traditional advice takes into account the feelings of the bearer of bad news rather than centering on the recipient, Manning said.

“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 in the release. “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.”

The researchers specifically studied breakup talks after one month of casual dating. Manning said ending deeper relationships might require a lighter touch.

"I imagine a divorce conversation, that's probably a longer conversation with a longer buffer," he said.

Throwing on the brakes

A similar scenario? It might surprise you, but getting a recall notice from your car's manufacturer evokes similar feelings as a breakup, Manning said.

"There's a bond between you and that car company," he said. "People tend to identify with the cars they drive a little bit."

When you receive a recall notice in the mail—letting you know something about your car is faulty and a repair needs to be made—the car company has made a breech of trust, Manning said. Those notices "actually need a tiny buffer" before launching into the problems with the vehicle.

"There needs to be an opening sentence," he said. "That's the same thing that happens with a personal breakup."

Danger! Danger!

But in some situations, people don't want the blow to be softened at all.

When it comes to impersonal issues of health and safety, we just want the information straight, "even though the standard advice is to explain what the problem is" first, Manning said to Rewire.

Think about safety warnings on the side of products, or life-threatening emergencies.  There's a reason stories pertaining to public safety are read at the top of a news program. Any other order would be burying the lede.

The same goes for bad news from the doctor. Or signs posted near a pond letting you know the water is toxic and unsafe to drink.

“If we’re negating physical facts, then there’s no buffer required or desired,” Manning said in the release. “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.”

Manning and Amare have long been studying effective communication. But this research has resonated with a lot of people "because it touches on everybody's experience—we get bad news every day of our lives," he said to Rewire.

At the end of the day, when you deliver bad news, "people are going to be bothered," Manning said, but "how much botheration" you put them through is up to you.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2019. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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