Bad News

Relational communication can be difficult to navigate for many reasons. One potential reason is concern regarding disclosure of what could be perceived as negative information. This negative information, termed bad news, was the subject of a recent study by Dibble and Sharkey (2017).

The authors of this study had numerous findings, but we will focus on the topics of bad news and why people indicated that they shared bad news. To explore their research questions, the authors used a sample of 330 participants who were about 21 years old. When asked to describe subjects of bad news, individuals described the several topics. The topics included physical well-being, relationship severed, disapproval/disappointment, and external circumstances/problematic situations (p. 454). Examples, then, included messages regarding health, termination, transgressions, and troubling media stories. 

Adding understanding to the study of bad news, authors then identified reasons individuals cited for communicating bad news. The first reason was called messenger-oriented, and as the name suggests, was particular to the messenger. For example, a person might communicate bad news in the interest of honesty and/or culpability. The second reason was called recipient-oriented and was specific to the person who would receive the message. For example, a person might convey bad news because the “recipient had a right to know, the recipient would find out anyway…[and/or] to avoid future repercussions” (p. 454). The last reason identified as to why a person might communicate bad news pertained to practicality. That is, a person might communicate bad news to “gain assistance from a third party” or “to get something done” (p. 454).

Though sending and receiving bad news may be a less than desirable experience for many, communicating such news will be a part of our collective lived experiences. Consequently, the findings from Dibble and Sharkey help describe the experiences that many of us will face.

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