Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

November 5, 2013 by Bettye Miller

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.

"If you're a manager, a bad news sandwich can make people feel good, but it might not help them improve their behavior," she added. The bad news sandwich may make the recipient less defensive, but the intended message may get lost and leave the receiver confused, she added. This study suggests that news-recipients would benefit from a good-then-bad news order when the bad news is useful to them.

"It's so complicated. It's important to fit the delivery to the outcome goal," Legg explained. "If you're a physician delivering a diagnosis and prognosis that are severe, where there is nothing the patient can do, tell them the bad news first and use positive information to help them accept it. If there are things a patient can do, give them the bad news last and tell them what they can do to get better."

The study has important implications for communication in many domains, the researchers said.

"Doctors must give good and bad health news to patients, teachers must give good and bad academic news to students, and romantic partners may at times give good and bad relationship news to each other," they wrote. "Our findings suggest that the doctors, teachers and partners in these examples might do a poor job of giving good and bad news because they forget for a moment how they want to hear the news when they are the patients, students, and spouses, respectively. News-givers attempt to delay the unpleasant experience of giving bad news by leading with good news while recipients grow anxious knowing that the bad news is yet to come. This tension can erode communication and result in poor outcomes for both news-recipients and news-givers."

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