The best way to say something no one wants to hear
We all have times when we have to tell someone something they don’t want to hear: I’m not going to make that deadline. We don’t have the budget for that. Sorry, I have plans that night.Being the bearer of bad news is an unfortunate but inevitable part of being a human, along with birth, death, and getting spinach stuck in your teeth.
And when you are the bearer of bad news, there’s a good chance the person on the receiving end will take it out on you, whether they grumble out loud or just quietly seethe to themselves. Recently, a new study out of Harvard Business School titled “Shooting the Messenger” confirmed what most of us already suspected: We have a tendency to, well, shoot the messenger, pinning our displeasure about bad news on whoever delivers it. It’s not just that we subconsciously like them less; according to the study, we also tend to believe — whether it makes sense or not — that the messenger is happy about what they’re saying.
“We tend to irrationally believe people can control chance events,” says Leslie John, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and a co-author of this new study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. “If a meteorologist says the forecast is bad, our research says you’ll dislike that person because they’re giving you bad news. If you ask someone directly, ‘Do you think the meteorologist can control the weather?’ the answer is no, of course not. But these deep intuitive beliefs sink in.”
The good news: There are ways to mitigate that response. Using these tips, you can deliver bad news like a well-intended good Samaritan — or at least do a passable impression of one.
Don’t get riled up
People really don’t like the feeling of not being in control — and when they hear something they don’t want to hear, that dislike rears its ugly head. “These are aversive experiences for people — they make you feel like you don’t have agency,” John says. “From that perspective, laying blame on the messenger may be a coping mechanism that’s largely adaptive, but here it’s incorrect.”
So, when you do bear the brunt of a reaction to bad news, don’t respond in kind. Stay cool. Remind yourself it’s not your fault. This might not change the reaction, but understanding why it’s happening might help you take it less personally and keep things emotionally contained.
Tell it to ’em straight — mostly
For the most part, says Alan Manning, professor of linguistics at Brigham Young University, people want you to be direct. If you’ve got something to say, just say it, even if it’s bad.
“Generally, you need to be explicit,” he says, especially if what you’re telling someone is an actual fact that neither of you have any real (or perceived) control over.
But in some cases, his research finds, a bit of buffer is called for. If the bad news is more of a social problem — less “It’s supposed to rain on the day of your barbecue”and more “It’s kind of tacky to ask everyone to bring their own hamburger buns” — it can be helpful to ease in.
Just be careful not to build it up too much. “Usually, just a ‘We need to talk’ is buffer enough,” Manning says. “If you buffer too much, that’s worse. People know the bad news is coming, and the longer the explanation is, the more you’re just ramping up that negative response.” It’s like telling a lie: Going overboard with the details only hurts your credibility.
Once you’ve blurted it out, though, you can start trying to repair the damage, Manning adds. “Afterwards, you can offer people support and hope.”
Remind them whose side you’re on
The Harvard study offers a seemingly obvious but truly helpful nugget of advice: You can avoid some of the backlash, the study authors note, by “explicitly conveying the benevolence of your motives.”
“What we did in the study to test this is have them say, ‘I’m rooting for you; I’m hoping for the best for you,’” John explains. “We find that when the messenger says this, the tendency to dislike them is tempered.”
Again, be sure not to lay it on too thick, or it’ll start to sound patronizing and insincere. In most situations, it’s helpful to pair this advice with Manning’s, and begin with a buffer that also reminds people you’re on their side.
“What I’ve been doing is prefacing it with something positive, but that I actually believe,” John says. “I work with doctoral students, and I’ll get an extremely badly written paper. I’ll say, ‘I believe you can do better,’ and then deliver the feedback.”