In Workplace Communications, Being Direct is Kind   

You’re sitting in front of an employee whose negative outlook and constant complaining is making it difficult for others to work with him. Or, a colleague has just sent you a note saying that unfortunately, no one on his team has time to participate in your strategic cross-functional project team. Your boss tells you, with great excitement, that she’s made an unrealistic promise to a significant client, and now she’s depending on you to make it happen.

In all these cases you’re faced with a dilemma: How do you tell the other person your side of the story without alienating them or damaging the relationship – and perhaps your career? So, in a misguided attempt to protect yourself and the other, you soften your words or say nothing at all.

Direct communication has many other benefits. It lowers the possibility of misunderstanding. It increases the level of trust in a relationship. It protects something more important than the cost of momentary discomfort – it protects the truth.

Along with courage, what do you need to communicate directly? Here are a few things to consider:

  1. Being direct is not the same as being curt. We have confused the skill of direct communication with thoughtless, rude bluntness. We even grudgingly admire people who are cruel with words by saying, “Well, at least you know where you stand. He’s very direct.” Direct does not mean you should spew your every thought, opinion and feeling as they occur. Most of the time, as in the situations cited above, you have several indicators that a conversation is needed. The best directness is well planned with regard for minimal threat to the other person.
  2. Think about the message you want to deliver. Consider the truth of your position and work toward using the right words. Get comfortable enough to own the message and use the word “I”. Write down the salient points. The act of writing and thinking about the message will help you to strip out the unnecessary verbiage. If you are prone to using emotional words, wait until you can use a neutral and non-threatening tone and deliver succinctly.
  3. Clearly separate the communication of facts and your observed or assumed impacts. Start with facts – what you observed (behaviours, words, emails, reactions of others) and follow with the impact. So, it’s ok to say, “You’ve been late three times this week. When you are not here on time it adds additional work to the rest of your team mates, and leaves customers who phone in, waiting.” On the other hand, it’s vague, confusing and slightly patronizing to begin with, “Is there something going on with you these days? You’re always late.”
  4. Become aware of your intentions. Intention is the hidden agenda behind the words we say. The problem is that often our intention is hidden from us, but glaringly obvious to the listener. For example, if I’m annoyed or angry with you what you’ll hear behind my words is my annoyance. My body language will be more obvious to you than it is to me. That short-term negative mood I’m stewing in will override any positive intention I want to convey. That’s why knee-jerk reactions shared bluntly work against direct communication: They are short sighted and confuse the listener. As part of being planned in your direct communications, reflect internally on your intention. Don’t deliver the message until your words and actions can corroborate your true intentions. If none of your intentions are good, rethink your timing.
  5. Make requests directly. When the purpose of the message is to make a request, don’t assume the listener will figure it out. Be direct and specific about what you want and need. “I want you to be more committed to your work“ is not direct. What do you need to see demonstrated so you will perceive the commitment to be high enough? Is the request to meet a deadline? “I’d like you to give this client our best service” is also indirect. What is your definition of best? What is the example that you are comparing to?
  6. Take the proper stance. A lot of times we make requests, but feel uncomfortable doing so. Instead of being direct, we turn the request into something else – a demand or a favour. We speak from a position that is superior or inferior than that of the person we’re requesting of. Our tone signals the other person how we feel in position to them, and how they had best respond. The most direct way to request is from a position of equality – one thinking adult to another. When you do this, you allow the other person the chance to accept or decline your request openly. Showing equal respect also allows negotiation on the details.
  7. Don’t say yes when you aren’t sure. When the requestor is clear, those of us on the receiving end have a responsibility to be direct also. Instead, we make assumptions about what is being asked of us. We’re afraid to look stupid, so we don’t ask questions for clarity. Or, we say yes when we really want to say no. Be direct enough to ask questions: “I’d like to help, but I’m not sure what it looks like from your perspective. What exactly do you want me to do?” or, “I know you made a promise to the client, but I don’t want to say yes to you when I have reservations about our ability to deliver. Let’s talk about the specifics.”

Our inability to be direct is at the heart of many misunderstandings. Time and again we choose to communicate indirectly to soften the message. This week, practice being more direct in your communications. Enlist your colleagues by giving them explicit permission to seek clarity and ask questions as you communicate with them.

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