Bad News Travels … Slowly

Jayson Dibble, Ph.D. | Associate Professor of Communication

If you’ve ever put off telling your boss that a project’s running late, you’ve got company. Over and over in his controlled experimental studies, Dr. Jayson Dibble finds the same pattern: If a person has bad news to deliver, it’s going to take some time. He’s heard of doctors waiting years to convey a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Studies show that most people think they behave this way because they don’t want to hurt the listener’s feelings. But Dibble and other communication researchers have another explanation. They think people are afraid that the person who gets the bad news will blame them for it or consider them insensitive.

Dibble thinks motivations differ depending on people’s contexts, a point of view he detailed in a 2018 article in Communication Research Reports.

The context Dibble looks at most is medicine. Conveying bad news is an everyday thing for many doctors. “They need to give accurate information to a patient so they can make important decisions. But they also need to communicate empathy, and the recognition that the patient is a person,” he says.

As a pre-med undergraduate, he noticed that “patients were happier with the doctor who related to them, even if they didn’t have all the answers.” Great bedside manner trumped diagnostic expertise. He found this so fascinating that he switched career plans, to teach and do research about communication. Some of his professional writing focuses on helping doctors improve their person-to-person skills.

Dibble stages situations and asks study participants to share news, both good and bad; then he analyzes videos of the interactions. No matter what variable he tests for — friends or strangers? text, email or conversation? — the results are consistent. Bad news drags its feet.

And that, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily bad. (In his experiments and many real-life situations, the delay may be just a few seconds long.) It’s okay to pause while you speak, he tells doctors; it’s a nonverbal clue that tough news is coming, and it gives a patient time to prepare for it. But body language should convey concern for the patient, not one’s own uneasiness. He coaches doctors to calm their anxiety through “self-talk” — to remind themselves before each difficult meeting that they aren’t to blame for the bad news they must deliver. Dr. Dibble’s prescription might be good medicine for all of us.

Read in TIME magazine about more of Dr. Dibble’s research.