Research: Where positive information comes in bad-news conversation can influence outcomes

Published on November 7, 2013 at 6:58 AM · No Comments

There's good news and there's bad news. Which do you want to hear first?

That depends on whether you are the giver or receiver of bad news, and if the news-giver wants the receiver to act on the information, according to researchers at the University of California, Riverside.

It's complicated.

The process of giving or getting bad news is difficult for most people, particularly when news-givers feel unsure about how to proceed with the conversation, psychologists Angela M. Legg and Kate Sweeny wrote in "Do You Want the Good News or the Bad News First? The Nature and Consequences of News Order Preferences." The paper appears online in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the official journal for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology.

"The difficulty of delivering bad news has inspired extensive popular media articles that prescribe 'best' practices for giving bad news, but these prescriptions remain largely anecdotal rather than empirically based," said Legg, who completed her Ph.D. in psychology in October, and Sweeny, assistant professor of psychology.

In a series of experiments, the psychologists found that recipients of bad news overwhelmingly want to hear that bad news first, while news-givers prefer to deliver good news first. If news-givers can put themselves in the recipient's shoes, or if they're pushed to consider how to make the recipient feel better, then they might be willing to give news like recipients want them to. Otherwise, a mismatch is almost inevitable.

But that's not the whole story. The researchers also determined that where good news is introduced in a conversation can influence the recipient's decision to act or change his or her behavior.

Legg and Sweeny noted that numerous websites and management handbooks recommend the "bad news sandwich" strategy - that is, a pattern of good-bad-good delivery of information. "Our findings suggest that the primary beneficiary of the bad news sandwich is news-givers, not news-recipients," they said. "Although recipients may be pleased to end on a high note, they are unlikely to enjoy anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop during the initial good news."

Hiding bad news won't be really effective if the desire is to change somebody's behavior, such as encouraging them to get a prescription filled or lab work done, said Legg, the paper's lead author.

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