Whether you’re delivering a presentation, emailing a client, or disciplining your teen, direct communication is good. Damaging communication, on the other hand, can destroy a sale, credibility, or a relationship forever.
Why does someone consider a remark over-the-top terrible, while another person interprets the same comment as direct, clear, straightforward, even prudent? Why does one media outlet report a politician’s remark as a huge blunder, while another media outlet reports the same remark as appropriate and even positive?
Why the difference in interpretation? Consider the following five factors to decide if what you’re about to say is “just being direct” versus damaging to your career and to your team?
How to Tell If What You Say Is Direct Communication or Damaging Communication
Examine the Context for Clues
Context matters a great deal. Words alone rarely carry the full weight of meaning. For example, consider this short sentence:
“I see.” (said with a smile and nod—can mean “I understand.”)
“I see.” (said with little intonation and a frown—can mean “I’m closing down this conversation.”)
“I see.” (said with a haughty tone and a sneer—can mean, “I’m angry and I’ll get even.”)
The more context wrapped around a thought, the more clues to your real meaning and how you’ll come across to colleagues.
Note the Tone
Tone refers to attitude. In a lighthearted conversation with a colleague about a social issue, I might be expressing a strong opinion about how the law should be changed to allow thus-and-so. My colleague ends with, “Then you should run for office!” I respond, “Right. I’m working to get my name on the ballot now!”
It’s highly likely that the next line that follows will be playful banter as well, not to be taken seriously.
Or the contrary: If the previous conversation has been serious, and someone gets called out for making an insulting remark, then they shouldn’t cry, “Foul, I wasn’t serious. I was just joking.”
Before you walk away from a conversation on a sensitive topic, consider the tone of the conversation overall. Did your remark fit the overall tone? If not, don’t be surprised if it’s misinterpreted later. If that’s a possibility, take the extra step to clarify. Were you serious? Teasing? Being playfully sarcastic?
Observe the Body Language
Your body language often reveals the truth you’d prefer to hide. You can force the words, but controlling the body language proves much tougher. When there’s a conflict between words and body language, others will believe your body language.
Acknowledge Your Bias as a Listener
We all have filters through which we see the world. Some biases are innocent and harmless; other biases are apparent and damaging to ourselves as well as others.
Early in my writing career, I queried my literary agent, a native New Yorker, to ask what he thought about my proposing a book on a true murder story in Texas that had gained national attention. His response: “Story’s not big enough for people to care. You’re dealing with New York editors. In their eyes, if it didn’t happen in New York, it didn’t happen.”
Smart agent. He acknowledged his own bias (and that of his buyers) and articulated it clearly. Listeners who acknowledge biases can function objectively if they decide to do so. When you communicate, understand that overcoming your own listener bias is a key part of the communication challenge. Analyze it and deal with it from the beginning.
Demonstrate Good Intentions as a Direct Communicator
Some organizations value harmony over direct, honest communication. When that’s the case, people hesitate to speak freely about what’s on their mind for fear of upsetting others. They choose instead to withhold honest disagreement or valuable feedback for the sake of “team harmony.”
But direct communication doesn’t necessarily exclude harmony. The grease that keeps the wheels turning is trusting someone’s good intentions. When your first thought is, “This person said X in an attempt to help, not hurt,” then direct communication leads to useful feedback, high performance, and increased productivity.
Demonstrate your good intentions frequently. As a direct communicator, you need others to trust that you mean well and value your integrity.
Direct communication doesn’t have to be a dirty habit that damages your workplace. Just don’t let direct communication damage your relationships.