Direct Communication ... Isn't.

It’s something you hear from time to time, often right in the middle of a tense workplace situation:  

“Well, I’m just a direct communicator.”

Putting aside the tinge of arrogance that often accompanies that claim, there’s an unexamined assumption baked into it: that this style of communication is the most direct. It almost never is.

To see how, we need to start by looking not at the initial communication “packet” in a vacuum, but at the actions that result. Did the words foster self-reflection or self-protection (i.e., growth or stagnation)?  If you’re serious about becoming an effective leader of people (or cultivating that in others), that’s the only measure that matters. Everything else is delusion from a person in power, taking the easy out of blaming someone with less of it.

We should assess and reward directness - and the quality of leadership communication generally - not by looking at the one talking, but by observing the one trying to listen.

How can you improve your radar to make this shift: As you evaluate the conversation, ask yourself what’s more palpable - a whiff of power or the spirit of curiosity?

(As a critical aside, you can go many years and never hear a complaint about this power-based, or brusque, style of direct communication — not because it’s what people want — but because people are afraid to tell you. As people leaders, we have infinitely more responsibility to raise our awareness of the subtle influence that structural authority and power have on the people around us).

From this expanded view, you’ll start to see some of the powerful, unintended, impacts that brusque communication can have:

Brusque communication ignores context and discourages inquiry. If you say “you’ve been late three times this week,” or “that work isn’t good enough,” while your observation may be entirely accurate, you’ve left no room to explore other factors that are almost certainly at play. If you assume positive intent from the people on your team (and, it’s worth asking why someone would still be on your team if you can’t assume that) then there must be something else going on that is causing this person to show up with less than their best.

Is it your colleagues responsibility to change? For sure. But if your communication style triggers excuses and defensiveness that leads to five more conversations to diffuse the situation, then there's nothing direct about it.

Brusque communication is heavy with psychological projection. It might be our most potent and problematic skill as humans: To judge others for behaving in ways or for having qualities that we don’t like or accept in ourselves. That we're susceptible to projecting our weaknesses onto others doesn't disqualify us from leading a team - only imagining that we aren’t doing that does! Name your frustration or concern with others while, in the same moment, speaking transparently about your version of the same or similar challenge.

Brusque communication thrusts you into an authority role you don’t want. All of us have, at best, troubled history with authority — both being one and having to deal with others in our lives. If your communication has even a whiff of those who’ve abused that responsibility in the past (and brusque communication is your best bet to trigger those memories in most people), you’ll find the people around you very quickly shutting down dialogue with you to protect themselves. The less open dialogue you have with your team, the less non-obvious information you’ll get from them, leaving you more and more isolated and ineffective.

Brusque communication is the language of compliance, kryptonite to self-accountability. When someone feels pushed or forced to change, under even the faintest threat from a person in authority, they may change, but it won’t come from a place of personal ownership. The change won’t sustain. What it will come with is a backlash, taking the form of gossip, politics, or blaming. They will often find other, covert, passive-aggressive ways to act out in rebellion. Diffuse that brusqueness with a quick look in the mirror — to stop and consider how you have contributed to the situation by having set unclear expectations or by not personally embodying your own values.   

Let’s teach and celebrate a new kind of direct communication in our organizations: instead of brusque, let’s aim for benevolent - not by avoiding to speak the truth, but by adding our deepest humanity into it.

How can you say the thing you want to say in a way your colleague will not only hear because they have to but will embrace because they want to — because they can feel it came from the heart of someone who cares.

Is there any path to the change you seek more direct than that?


Jonathan Raymond