You know the feeling. Something is wrong. You’re the leader. You really should say something about it. But confronting someone is the LAST thing you feel like doing. You consider your options. Perhaps you can do nothing, or simply drop a hint, and the problem will go away. You’re in agony watching the cycle of identifying a problem, shying away from a difficult conversation and then having the problem continue. How do you fix it?
I was raised on the West Coast, a part of our country where people are “nice”. Speaking in a frank manner was definitely NOT the tool of choice when resolving problems. People might subtly infer if there is a problem. Rarely would they say what they were thinking directly to your face (though behind your back was generally okay). It just wasn’t “nice” to tackle relational problems head-on.
Then I moved to the Northeast. I got creamed. I thought everyone hate me. They were always raising problems . . . to my face! They were direct and it didn’t feel particularly kind. I thought something must have happened to me on my trip from the West Coast to the East Coast because people were treating me so differently. But after about a year I came to a revelation: I did have friends and people did like me. I realized that on the East Coast, you always know where you stand with someone. The relational air was surprisingly clear. Great things happened because people weren’t afraid to be direct.
DIRECT VS INDIRECT COMMUNICATION STYLE
Do you struggle to be direct? You’re not alone . . . most people do. But if you’re indirect you may be hurting your career, relationships and potential. Here’s why:
Indirectness kills creativity and productivity. Indirect leaders fail to communicate both what they want and what they don’t want. Employees don’t understand what behaviors to avoid. They don’t know what the boss’ pet peeves (organizational landmines) are. This makes them afraid to contribute new ideas (for fear of presenting something that isn’t wanted). Employees retreat into their known silos and do business as usual. Indirect leadership creates an atmosphere where playing it safe and doing nothing is rewarded with continuing employment.
An indirect communication style fails to resolve problems and causes stress. Unresolved problems cause dull pain. It’s like a toothache that reminds you that something is wrong. Just like our teeth, problems don’t get better when we fail to address them. The dull pain amplifies other problems, making indirect leaders feel worse than they would otherwise.
An indirect communication style may reveal a lack discipline. It takes leadership discipline to look for problems, find solutions and speak with the people involved. Indirect people sometimes lack this leadership discipline and feel it is easier to let problems go in the hopes they will go away.
Indirectness makes leaders look weak. Leaders are in charge. Sometimes we are the only ones on our team who can deal with the obvious problems. Our people are relying on us to solve the challenges they can’t. We hurt our careers and our people when we fail to directly address challenges.
Indirectness promotes staff turnover. Indirect leaders drop hints. They beat around the bush. Indirect leaders ask others to communicate their message to a problem individual. Staff members view these things through their own lenses (past personal experiences) and come to negative conclusions. The unclear expectations create frustration and insecurity among staff members, which ultimately promotes turnover.
NOT ALL DIRECT COMMUNICATION IS CONSTRUCTIVE
Bad “direct” – The truth in anger: One of the reasons a direct communication style can be so difficult for some people is because they associate it with anger. How many times have we had an angry person say direct things to us? They have something that bothers them but are afraid to bring it up. It’s only after a problem emotionally elevates during an argument that the finally truth comes out (in an ugly way). Their issue may genuinely need to be raised. However, it’s impossible for the recipient to accept the criticism because it is in the middle of a heated argument. Directness is seen as an instrument for hurt rather than a positive relational tool.
Good “direct” – The truth in love: Good “direct” is about good intent. The Apostle Paul had one of the best “direct” styles in history. In Ephesians 4:15 he promotes the power of “speaking truth in love” to each other so that we will grow. When you read any of Paul’s letters you see that he is both encouraging and direct about things needing to be addressed. Paul says a lot of tough things, but always from a standpoint of constructive criticism and caring. When done this way, directness positively promotes growth and strengthens relationships.
HOW TO DEVELOP A DIRECT COMMUNICATION STYLE
Our personality and skill set determine how easy it is for us to be direct. Some people are wired to be direct (drill sergeants, football coaches, prophets, etc.). Some people have had “direct” modeled well for them by friends and family. Other people are wired in a way that they detest conflict or have only seen “direct” used against them in ugly arguments. Where are you in this continuum? Knowing yourself will give you an indication of how difficult it will be for you to “speak the truth in love.”
Being direct starts with intent: If you need to speak with someone directly, make sure it is because you have their best interest (and the best interest of your organization) at heart. People are perceptive. People will listen if they sense you are talking with them because you care. If they sense bad intent they will quickly become defensive. Remember Theodore Roosevelt’s wise words, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Direct communication is enabled by relationship: Beyond good intent you need relationship. This means that you know the person you are speaking with. Over time you should have built positive relational capital with the individual. This means that you have made relational “deposits” in the past by encouraging them, asking about their family, helping them and paying attention to them. Having plenty of relational deposits means that you can make a “withdrawal” by being direct, without destroying the relationship. In the best relationships, showing you care by being direct can actual be a relational deposit and not a withdrawal.
Find the right location: A direct conversation requires the right location. Choose a place where others can’t see/hear you. Have tissue available in case things get emotional. Choose a place where you both can quietly go your own way immediately following the conversation. Choose an informal setting (seating area in your office) over a formal one (you behind your desk).
Use the right tone: Be mindful with your tone of voice and body language. Both should be calm, friendly and business-like. Remember that your words will have a lot of weight just because of your leadership position. The person you are talking with may have had bad experiences with confrontations and conflict. They may bring a lot of past baggage into the conversation. They may quickly become defensive if they think you are angry or wanting conflict. Commit to having the conversation quickly after the problem is discovered. Procrastinating builds tension and makes it more difficult to maintain an even tone.
Start by prefacing your comments: People want to be treated as adults. Set the stage by sharing what you will be doing and that you will be speaking in a straightforward manner. Example: “John, I know how much you care about things around here and I appreciate that. There are some things that are concerning me. If it’s alright, I would like to speak frankly with you about them.” This allows people to know that something difficult is coming but that you are going to speak about it as adults.
“Rip off that bandage quickly”: Having set the tone now is the time to say what needs to be said clearly and directly. Example: “Last month I asked you to get an agreement signed by ABC Company so they could use our facilities. As I understand it, that never happened and now they are going elsewhere. What’s up with that?” Asking for a response after stating a fact engages them and allows you to discover things you may not know. Many times the person will make excuses at first, but ultimately accept responsibility for their shortcoming.
Frame your response with common sense: At this point, keep the conversation frank and focused on the problem (so that it does not become personal). Example: “Okay, I see where things went wrong. John, losing ABC Company’s business is a $10,000 loss for us. That’s money we need to pay our employees and expand into other cities. We can’t afford these kinds of oversights. You’re better than this and I need you to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” If the person wants to take the conversation down different trails, politely and firmly redirect it back to the topic at hand. Example: “John, maybe Mary did mess up that other account . . . but right now we’re talking about what happened with ABC Company.” Stay singularly focused on the problem at hand.
Cover everything: In direct conversations there can be a temptation to explore most of a problem, but to leave out the most difficult part. Be sure to say all of what is necessary. There will never be a better time to do it! End by affirming the future and the value of direct communication: Example: “John I’m glad you’ll be doubling your efforts with ABC Company. I’ll look forward to seeing them here next year. I’m glad we have the kind of relationship where we can be straight with each other like we were here today.” End the conversation with a smile and handshake if appropriate.
DIRECT COMMUNICATION IS TWO-WAY STREET
Directness isn’t just about being able to occasionally “dish it out.” Through all your interactions, invite others to be honest and direct with you. Respond to them thoughtfully when they are. You should be able to accept direct communication from others as well as provide it. Be consistent in your directness and people will see you as a “trusted critic.” Directness with honesty can be so rare that people will value it . . . and you as a leader . . . to an unusual degree.
HAVING THE COURAGE TO BE DIRECT
Conflict is unavoidable. It’s a natural part of our organizations and relationships. The only question is, ‘How will I handle conflict?” If you have been defaulting to an indirect communication style, I encourage you work on becoming direct. It may be one of the more difficult things you do in your leadership this year, but I’ll bet it will be the most rewarding.
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. – Ephesians 4:25
Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. – Matthew 5:37
Note: This post was developed from my presentation to the national Xpastor conference in Dallas and originally appeared on the Xpastor website. I discuss it further with Rich Birch on the unSeminar podcast. Click here to watch.