Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: How to dump someone the humane way

Planning on dumping a partner, firing an employee or otherwise delivering bad news to someone? A new Brigham Young University study offers advice on how to minimize the psychological damage you inflict when you drop your bombshell.

There are two schools of thought on the science of bad news. One holds that you should soften the impact of the news by padding it with an "explanatory buffer," laying out the case for what you're about to say before you actually say it. Conversely, other research has found that you should just tear the Band-Aid off, delivering the bad news first and saving your commentary for afterward.

Professors Alan Manning of Brigham Young University and Nicole Amare of the University of South Alabama wanted to untangle this question. So they administered a study to 145 undergraduates that involved A/B testing of a number of bad-news scenarios. For instance, in one of the experiments, they asked participants to imagine that they had been dating a person they liked for about a month and that they met up with that person in a cafe. They were then asked which of the two scenarios would be "least bothersome" to them.

IT'S OVER

Two different ways to get dumped.

INDIRECT SCENARIO

YOU: Good to see you. You look great.

YOUR DATE: Thanks. You know, I've really had a good time with you this past month.

YOU: I'm glad. I think we get along great.

YOUR DATE: We've had fun.

YOU: I notice you're talking about us in the past tense. Oh no.

YOUR DATE: It's not your fault, really. I can't help it if my feelings for you aren't that strong.

YOU: So you're breaking up with me.

YOUR DATE: Yes. I guess I should just go.

DIRECT SCENARIO

YOU: Good to see you. You look great.

YOUR DATE: Thanks. We need to talk though.

YOU: Oh no. What's going on?

YOUR DATE: It's not your fault. I've just come to realize that I have strong feelings for someone else now, and I want to make that relationship exclusive.

YOU: I don't know what to say. I thought you and I were getting along great.

YOUR DATE: We've had fun, but I can't help it that I have strong feelings for someone else.

YOU: I guess not. I'll miss being with you.

YOUR DATE: Thanks. I guess I should just go.

In this case, 74 percent of the participants preferred the direct approach to getting dumped. Note that in the indirect scenario, the dumper is so passive as to make the dumpee actually come out and say that the relationship is ending — this is a big no-no, according to Manning and Amare's research.

Respondents showed similar preferences when it came to getting bad medical news — in this case, a cancer diagnosis.

GIVE IT TO ME STRAIGHT, DOC

Two different ways to receive bad medical news

INDIRECT SCENARIO

YOU: So, what do the tests show?

DOCTOR: First we should do a few more tests.

YOU: Why even more tests?

DOCTOR: The first round of tests suggest that you might have cancer.

YOU: Oh no. What happens now?

DOCTOR: We want to be sure before we begin the standard treatments.

YOU: Treatments for what?

DOCTOR: Chemotherapy and radiation are used to inhibit rogue cells in your body that are multiplying too quickly. That is what we mean when we say you have cancer.

DIRECT SCENARIO

YOU: So, what do the tests show?

DOCTOR: The tests suggest that you have cancer.

YOU: Oh no. What happens now?

DOCTOR: First we should do a few more tests.

YOU: Why even more tests?

DOCTOR: We want to be sure before we begin the standard treatments.

YOU: What are those?

DOCTOR: Chemotherapy and radiation are used to inhibit rogue cells in your body that are multiplying too quickly. That is what we mean when we say that you have cancer.

Sixty-four percent said they'd prefer to receive bad medical news through the direct approach.

In general, 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 said in a release. "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 either. 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.

Manning suspects that people delivering bad news often opt for a more indirect, sugarcoated approach because it's easier for them, not for the person they're talking to. But he also cautions a bad-news-giver not to blurt it out unexpectedly. "An immediate 'I'm breaking up with you' might be too direct," he said. You 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."

For that, Manning suggests using the four most ominous words in the English language: "We need to talk."

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center. © 2017 Washington Post

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