Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Why Should I Cater to People Who are Afraid to Speak Their Mind?

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am a very direct individual. I struggle to work with anyone who is not direct, who is conflict-avoidant, and who does not speak up to ensure we work together effectively. Trying to make it safe for people like this feels like coddling and a waste of time. I think it’s good to learn skills to speak up, but I don’t see the benefit in placating to people who are insecure or introverted or both. Am I missing something?


Dear Direct,

It depends on what you want. It may be true that it’s more efficient in the moment to be “very direct” and not try to make it safe for everyone to share their perspective, but virtually all the research in interpersonal communication suggests that kind of approach can be inefficient in the long run.

If you’re not communicating in a way the invites others into the conversation, the result may be tacit agreement in the moment, then later gossip, complaining, distrust, lack of engagement, and a host of other organizational illnesses that kill your culture. The dialogue skills we teach are much like any other good habit: they require effort, but they lead to better outcomes.

I’m not trying to persuade you. I’m simply sharing what the research shows. Maybe you want to conduct your own experiment and see if anything changes. Here are some tweaks to consider trying.

Examine Your View of Honesty

I get the sense that you think your approach is not a problem, but I want to challenge that assumption. I realize it can be easier to say exactly what you’re thinking and feeling instead of filtering your thoughts and comments, but reflecting on the impact of your directness may make you that much more effective. The good news is you don’t have to sacrifice honesty for another person’s feelings. You can keep both in view.

People often think honesty and respect are on a continuum—with respect on one end and honesty on the other. We assume we need to choose one or the other in our crucial interactions.

Here is what we know from studying such interactions for the last 30 years: the best don’t view honesty and respect as opposites. The best focus on communicating with 100% honesty and 100% respect.

So, the question I invite you to reflect on is this: Is your directness also respectful? Or is there the chance you sometimes sacrifice respect in your effort to be direct?

The Myth of “Brutal Honesty”

I’m not sure if this is accurate, but I worry that your “directness” may not be as respectful as you think. I think it’s important to note that being direct has nothing to do with being angry, hurtful, mean, or with “letting off steam.”

I’ve worked with dozens of people who say, “Justin, I’m just brutally honest—it’s just my personality.” I worry that these people care more about being brutal than about being honest. Being honest and direct is about being clear, specific, sincere, and authentic. So, you don’t have to be rude or short to be direct. You do need to state the observable facts of the situation and your perspective about those facts.

It’s dishonest to express our opinions as facts, which is what we often do in crucial moments. Conversely, it’s honest to recognize and make it clear that our opinions are just that—opinions. It’s also honest to recognize that more than one opinion exists and that other perspectives may be more accurate than ours. And those are facts. The model I use for starting even the toughest conversations is this:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story (opinion)
  • Ask for others’ perspectives

Being “direct,” as you state, is fine so long as it’s not filled with a raised voice, labels, or overstated opinions. Directness contributes to the discussion when it’s filled with facts, observations, and opinions shared as opinions.

Lift Others, Don’t Placate to Them

The people who you think are not being direct may be so pre-occupied with their need to be nice that they are too light on honesty. But it also may be true that they don’t feel safe to speak up because of how direct you are. Most leaders I know who have this habit aren’t aware they have it. They see themselves as bold defenders of truth, while everyone else sees them as overbearing steamrollers.

There’s a hilarious episode of The Office where the uber-confident salesperson Robert California tells Jim, who is reticent to speak openly, that “The fallacy is that [psychological safety] is up to the steamroller. [In truth] it is up to the object whether it will be flattened or not.”

Wow! The implication is that it’s up to others to stand up to the person doing the steamrolling.

While it’s true that we are responsible for our own sense of psychological safety, it’s also true that when we feel threatened or disrespected, our tendency is to fight, flee, or freeze. Not taking responsibility for safety in a dialogue would be like not taking responsibility for safety on a tandem bicycle. If even one person doesn’t care about the safety of everyone involved, it can lead to disastrous results.

So, you can make it easier for people to speak up by asking for their opinions before expressing yours. And then when it’s time to talk, don’t overstate your opinions. Start with observable facts, then share your interpretation of the facts, then invite others to respond.


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

18 thoughts on “Why Should I Cater to People Who are Afraid to Speak Their Mind?”

  1. reneemickler

    It does depend on your goals. If you want to be effective on the job and at communicating / interacting you need to know that other people have different skills and initiating sensitive or controversial conversations is not in their tool kit. It’s not a character flaw. They may need some tools and a focus on developing those skills. I understand your frustration because you expect everyone to behave in the same way you do, which reveals the gap between your expectations and reality. That could be an area for you to develop.

    1. Andy

      Ah, expectations… they are usually setting one up for disappointment.

      1. Donna

        Here is one of my favorite sayings:
        Expectation is the root of all heartache.

  2. Kathleen

    In the bible (Eph 4:15) believers are encouraged to “speak the truth in love”. Yes, we always want to be honest (which takes some doing so we don’t fool ourselves) but we also want to be loving (aka respectful). This is a goal. I’m one of those people that avoids conflict. I pick my battles and can definitely hold my own if it’s worth it. But many things aren’t worth the conflict and hurt feelings. I don’t want “my way” that badly in most situations. CC has taught me to stay in the conversation and share my meaning in uncomfortable situations. I hope when others work alongside me that they see a person that is both honest and respectful. It’s a daily struggle. Thank you CC for giving language to help us navigate these situations and become the person we want to be.

  3. Kate C

    I am an introvert and detest dealing with people like the letter writer. Why? More often than not, they speak over and/or don’t listen when someone else does speak up (not coddling others as they believe). Also, I admit I tend to communicate better via written word rather than spoken word.

    Ultimately, I’ve gotten to the point in my career that I will speak up if I think what my contribution to the conversation is important enough AND I believe the person/people in the room will listen/be open to what I am saying. Otherwise, I feel it is a waste of breath and time (as well as I don’t want to jack up my blood pressure).

  4. Judy Green Smith

    I highly recommend the Strength Deployment Inventory for Direct (and all of us.) CL did the webinar a few weeks ago and it gave me so much insight into my personality. I am a people person all the way and just cringed when I read Direct’s great question about “coddling” people. I have to step back and assume a generous view. My hunch is Direct has a Performance view of the world and what a gift that is. All our teams need every sort of gifting. I would like to see Direct and their team take the SDI test. I think it would provide some valuable insights because SDI was the first personality test that I have taken that goes beyond myself and into how I can relate better to others and them to me. I appreciate Direct asking this question that I bet has been floating around in their head for a long time. I hope they are open to at least one of the suggestions, because, as a people person, I would do all I could to avoid them to prevent moral distress in myself in how they speak to others if they are truly as “direct” as they say they are.

  5. Susan Fair

    Great article! Over my many years, I have noticed that many very direct managers often micromanage their employees. I am not saying there is a direct correlation, but that the two may go hand-in-hand. I’ve observed that managers who are both direct and who micromanage often do not want feedback unless it supports their views. I’ve seen employees “slapped” down publicly for being honest which can create fear in others, or the “why bother…my opinion doesn’t matter anyway.” I have often wondered if managers who are too direct have higher turnover, lower engagement scores, less creativity from staff, and less quality/quantity of work from those reporting to them.

    On the flip side, working with people requires communication. Teams who have more engagement and higher productivity tend to have more open and honest communication.

    If leaders want their employees to feel free to speak up, they need to spend time getting to know their employees with one-on-one meetings and supporting their staff. Introverted people like to have time to think about questions before they are asked to respond. Before meetings, send the agenda with questions/discussions points out in advance so people have time to gather their thoughts and to present their best selves, responses and ideas at meetings.

    While everyone should act professionally and respectfully, it’s worth mentioning that people are not respected because of a title, rather respect is earned. And once it is destroyed, it is difficult to regain.

    FYI, there is a typo in the second paragraph of the letter to Dear Direct, “If you’re not communicating in a way the invites others into the conversation…” The word “the” should be “that.”

  6. Rhonda Hardcastle

    Crucial conversation skills are about how to present your thoughts and opinions in a manner that allows others to do the same in a respectful manner, which some may view as merely charming as opposed to realistic. In a world seemingly intent on infecting those around us with hate, learning to communicate with respect is essential.

  7. Alex

    Thank you for covering this question! We inevitably get someone with this mindset in every workshop we teach, so it’s nice to see the response summarized. We emphasize the Daryl videos as examples of how you can still get your point across while being respectful.

  8. Chris S.

    Justin, I love your tandem bicycle analogy. That is a very clear and memorable picture to use when thinking about responsibility and safety in a crucial conversation. Thank you for that!

  9. Crys

    I read the book Crucial Conversations years ago and it was one book that changed my life at the time. I had similar thinking to Direct and it opened my eyes to being more open in having a candid conversation. I will say that Part of the reason for being Direct is an effort to deliver with clarity, but the message can still be received poorly and not at all as intended if delivered too abruptly. Another reason high stakes Conversations may be uncomfortable for someone direct is because candid is being mistaken for soft.

  10. Barry

    Not everyone communicates the same way. The basic need for Crucial Conversations is to bridge communication gaps. Direct’s style and contempt for those who do not share it demonstrates the need.

    I teach people in my sphere of influence on how to engage in what I call, respectful “Sassy Banter”. When managed appropriately, it allows people to say what needs to be said, and yet maintain safety for different communication styles. Direct’s style likely shuts down getting the knowledge pool filled.

  11. Emily

    Another point that wasn’t mentioned was that people’s cultural backgrounds can also influence their communication style. In workplaces that are becoming increasingly more diverse, being open to different communication styles means being able to hear important perspectives/ideas that may be getting shut down when communication expectations are too rigid.

  12. Sandra S.

    What I learned at work from being a more generally confident, direct speaker than some folks felt comfortable with (even though I was never intentionally rude or disrespectful) is that it’s not one of the other – it’s both! I needed to learn to do a better job at making space for the more reticent people and they needed to learn to be a bit more forthright. The responsibility went both ways.

    I’ve come to appreciate that not everyone was fortunate enough to be brought up to be self-confident, and, even those who were, didn’t necessarily have the same communication environment growing up that I did or are just more naturally shy. On the flip side, I didn’t have the benefit of learning as a kid not to interrupt people, since everyone “interrupting” each other was the normal communication style where I grew up. So, when I moved and segued into a different environment, I had a lot of work to do on that (and still do, to this day, to a lesser extent…some habits are very ingrained and really hard to break)!

    That said, while I’ve come to respect different communication styles, I cannot defend those people who are passive aggressive, which, to me, is at least as bad as being too aggressive aggressive, if not worse, since it’s not only rude but duplicitous.

  13. David

    Efficiency with people is ineffective. With people, fast is slow and slow is fast. – Stephen R. Covey

  14. Elizabeth

    I agree–great article! I especially like the part about honesty, and how it’s actually dishonest to fail to see that there could be another perspective.

    One thing that I felt could have been stronger in this article is the last section. I wonder if “Direct” would agree with your assumption that blaming the victim of the steamroller is unfair–or if they would actually agree with Robert California! Here are some thoughts I have for “Direct” about why they should, in fact, care about the other human beings they work with.

    * Just as you don’t choose to be an extrovert, introverts don’t choose to be introverts. We all come into this world with our own personalities, which we don’t choose. We can all learn to change or moderate our behaviors, meaning you can learn to create safety in a conversation, even though it’s a struggle, and natural introverts can learn to speak up more–but it will probably never be natural for them. Perhaps reflecting on what is hard for you will help you have more compassion for them.

    * In addition, whatever their natural tendencies, many people have experiences from childhood or later in life that they bring to the table. Many people have been socialized to be quiet and not speak up, and some are even dealing with trauma from abuse. Someone dear to me lived in an abusive household as a child, and when people yell at him, he goes into self-protection mode, and is unable to speak up for himself. This is not his fault. He is dealing with years of unaddressed trauma, and he is trying to learn to communicate better and be self-confident, but he is dealing with a burden that most of us will probably never understand, and he didn’t choose it. Please be compassionate. You never know what most people are carrying with them–especially if you have a habit of not creating safety.

    1. Jennifer

      Thanks for your comments. I am a fairly confident person, known for speaking up when it is important, but my brain totally shuts down when someone starts yelling or speaking disrespectfully in a group. I’m probably not the only one.

  15. Gary

    This discussion reminds of

    That website / book discusses the importance of both not sugarcoating the truth while at the same time showing sincere caring for the other person in order to communicate effectively.

    Similar to the crucial conversations concept of sharing your intent.

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