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How to Be DIRECT Without Pissing People Off

They say you like to shoot from the hip - and they don't mean it as a compliment! 5 simple tips for being direct AND getting heard.

People have always told me that I’m very direct. Little do you know all the things I’m not telling, I invariably think to myself.

I come from a country that prides itself on directness. Germans like to complain about Americans. Their need to be “nice” and never say what they really think. Others, of course, may experience German directness as harsh. Americans like to complain about how some of their Asian colleagues never say what they really think. A Chinese person, however, may experience an American communication as brash. Yes, directness is culture-relative.

“Choosing the right level of candor is crucial to keeping people connected and listening to you,” says Emmy-award winning former news anchor and corporate communications coach Connie Dieken in her wonderful book Talk Less, Say More (Wiley, p.44). “The wrong level of candor can lead to defensiveness, hurt feelings, withholding, or poor performance.”

Agreed. I’m choosing to be a lot more direct these days. Directness feels good. I feel untethered, and directness has powerfully elevated my professional impact.

Then, the other day …

I come home from a dinner and think of a few things I have said to my host, and I suddenly panic. Wait a minute, that may have been way too unfiltered. You may have totally offended him! And I remember the two emails I sent earlier in the day. They contained difficult messages. I did not receive answers right away.

Really, am I being too direct?

Maturity means you and I second-guess ourselves less. We have the courage of getting to the point. And we are, I hope, kind to others. Here’s my Directness Checklist. If it works for you as well – consider it a Memo to You:

1. Don’t Make Them Wrong

In case of doubt, argue passionately FOR what you stand for instead of AGAINST what they believe in. Draw a contrast between two divergent positions if you must, but resist the temptation to hammer away at everything that is wrong about what s/he values. Chances are, you will get lost in a tirade where what you stand for gets lost. Directness gone wrong.

2. Cut the Edge

The edge – that is any tinge of arrogance, superiority, sarcasm. Any touch of bravado or self-righteousness. Your swagger. Cut it. The edge tends to show up when we’re not aware of what we’re feeling, and those feelings suddenly hijack the message instead of informing it. When we speak with an edge all they hear is the edge, and what we advocate for is instantly dismissed.

3. Keep it Brief

Direct goes hand-in-hand with concise. The danger? When we feel strongly about a point of view, we will always be tempted to go on and on. And on. Because we want them to “really get it.” The less they get it, the more we go on and on. Their wall goes up, as Connie Dieken so aptly points out. A vicious cycle. It’s brutal. Brevity, please.

4. The 1-second Delay

You pride yourself on being direct but others have labeled you a “shoot-from-the-hip” kinda person? You may think to yourself yeah that’s kinda cool, but chances are the label was not intended as a compliment. Direct with no impact. You know how they have a 7-second delay in live television so an editor can bleep the unacceptable crap? When you find yourself wanting to shoot from the hip, impose your own 1-second delay. Breathe. Think. Edit yourself.

5. The Essential Questions Scan

If you’re not sure if being direct will be helpful in a given situation, ask yourself these two questions during your 1-second Delay: Does it need to be said? and Am I the one who needs to say it? If the answer to either question is NO, consider being less direct than you’re inclined to be.

Here’s my Cruise-Ship Directness primer. You know how there are those conversations we have over and over again? Here’s a conversation that is endemic to South Florida where I live. My home is 15 minutes from the Port Everglades Cruiseport in Ft. Lauderdale, and nearly everyone in my social circles takes advantage of this proximity. Folks here LOVE to cruise. And they LOVE to talk about it. I don’t love cruising. To me, being on a cruise ship feels like being locked up in a gaudy Las Vegas hotel with too many guests in the halls and no way to escape. I have learned to not indulge my disdain of cruises. I talk about the joys of vacationing in the Keys, instead. Very directly.

The two emails I wrote? The responses came in and all is well. I had a pleasant social exchange with my dinner host. But I’m relieved that I considered my Directness Checklist again.

I need it ever so often.

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