Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Dissecting Direct Talk

Dear Crucial Skills,

Why is direct talk bad? I’m not talking about rudeness or offering my opinion. I’m talking about saying things without adding “cushioning” words. It’s not well received when we speak directly and to the point. This isn’t about passing judgment on someone and voicing those judgments. It’s about getting work done.

A veteran direct talker

Dear Veteran,

I think most of us love the speed and ease with which we conduct a conversation when chatting with trusted and loving friends. With close friends we tend to speak our minds without having to take extra steps to ensure the other person doesn’t become offended or defensive. As you suggest, we’re not punitive, but we don’t warm others up with warnings such as: “I hope you don’t find this offensive,” nor do we fall over backward to use tentative language. We just put our opinions out there and it seems to work just fine. This is the kind of “direct talk” most of us enjoy.

Unfortunately, direct talk doesn’t always work and here are the reasons why:

Void of trust. Like I just mentioned, if you don’t have a relationship founded on trust, you can’t expect to move quickly to an argument without softening the blow. You don’t know others’ motives and slight changes in tone might signal an underlying disagreement. Consequently, you have to get to know each other a lot better before you can “cut to the chase.”

Different expectations or backgrounds. People often have different expectations about what is a harmless statement of fact and what isn’t. For instance, if you lived in South America and just happened to carry a few extra pounds, absolute strangers might call you “gordita” or “gordito” (a little bit fat but in a cute kind of way). They would say this to you, a total stranger, as a term of endearment. If you’re from the States, you would probably find the word “fat” (even when accompanied by the “ito” or “ita”) to be a criticism. Where you come from, you don’t call people fat.

Difference in perspective. You don’t have to visit different countries to be viewed as too curt or abrasive. For instance, to tell someone that their idea is completely wrong might feel like an objective statement to you, but it might feel like an attack to the other person. Some of these differences can be explained by who’s giving versus whose receiving the feedback. “Wrong” sounds right if you’re saying it about someone else’s thinking and “wrong” sounds wrong when others are talking about your thinking.

Familial differences. In your family, blurting out your opinion and allowing an argument to stem from there is healthy and natural. However, your spouse’s family starts every differing opinion with a warm-up statement—“I’m not sure this is true, but I heard the other day. . .” You think your family is healthy, fun and fast paced. You think your spouse’s family is emotionally challenged and conversing with them is like swimming in molasses. In turn, they think you’re abrasive and insensitive.

Innate differences. Sometimes differences in opinion about what is frank versus what is fractious are more hard wired than learned. Research demonstrates that certain people (they tend to be more mathematically gifted than others) actually process information differently from the masses. They use the higher-level thinking portions of their brain to analyze subtle human interaction—a method that doesn’t serve them well. In a discussion, they often see only the logic, miss subtle interpersonal themes, and don’t spot emotions. This causes them to come off as socially backward. These folks don’t understand why others become upset or emotional when they themselves see no need for it. And yes, they are often described by their peers as abrupt, insensitive or even unaware. In contrast, they believe they speak “directly” and view others as illogical bundles of emotion.

The good news is, whatever the source behind your difference of opinion about what is appropriately direct and what is too direct, the solution is the same. As you watch others becoming defensive or hurt, quickly back off your short-hand talk and employ more labor intensive language tools. Create safety by establishing mutual purpose, clarify misunderstandings by using contrasting, soften your message by using tentative terms, and don’t say much without stopping to ask how the other person views the issue.

Of course, this less-direct method comes at a cost. If you’re in a hurry, it will feel painfully slow. If you’re from different cultures or backgrounds, it will feel socially out of step. If your brain is structured to calculate square roots in your head, the need to be less direct will feel illogical and unnecessary.

However, no matter the type of annoyance you experience, if you want the interaction to flow smoothly, read the signs the other person is sending you and adjust accordingly. If you’d rather plow on ahead with whatever is on your mind, get used to criticizing others for being too sensitive and being criticized yourself for being too abrupt.

Best wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

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