Some people pride themselves on being direct. They believe ‘getting to the point’ or ‘cutting out the fluff’ makes a productive conversation. There is no doubt that it feels good to remove the filter and tell it like it is, however, unsurprisingly not everyone loves this style of communication.

Feedback and directness can certainly be a gift, but if not wrapped correctly, will come across as abrasive or rude. Choosing when and how to be direct in the workplace is an acquired skill as the wrong level of candour can break relationships, build defensiveness, and impact performance.

For some people, it takes courage and practice to be direct and for others it comes a little too easily. Strong communicators are able to carefully assess their audience, the situation, and the environment before removing their filter and telling it like it is.

Ultimately, being direct has its place and arguably many conversations would benefit from a bit more directness. But it will never be a successful interaction if one party is left feeling humiliated, frustrated or even angry.

Direct or just rude?

We can all think back to a time when we were on the other end of a work colleague’s directness. It is easy to remember simply because of the negative way it made us feel.

Chances are this person was just trying to deliver a difficult message or get to the point, but it is remembered for all of the wrong reasons. An employee that always proudly uses the ‘direct style’ will be seen by others as a steam roller that pushes on with messaging, irrespective of the impact.

The trouble is that this employee believes that directness is their strength and others view it as their greatest adversity. It is important to strike common ground in workplace communications where directness can be used as part of an effective communicators toolkit. Employees who are constantly on the other end of direct communication tend to view it as harsh, rude, or insensitive.

The following tips will help with being direct without impacting workplace relationships.

5 tips to be direct at work without impacting your personal brand

1. Listen intently

Direct communicators that are pulled up on their style, will usually respond with, “I was just trying to save time and get to the point”, or “I don’t have time to sugar-coat it”. The issue is that the person on the other end of the directness will commonly feel cut off, not heard and steamrolled. A direct comment will have a stronger impact if you first listen intently. Showing this respect will demonstrate that you are not just driving your own agenda.

2. Keep it about the work – not the person

Direct communicators often get people off side by using comments that shut others down. They can usually see that something wont work and will call it.

For example, they may say, “that idea is flawed and will never work” or “you're wrong – your approach will fail”. This may be true but it is much more appropriate to focus the comment on the work, such as “The production cycle you’re suggesting does not have that capability. Let’s discuss an alternative approach”.

3. Be aware of nonverbal communication

Directness is not just spoken words, it can also be felt through tone and body language. Given a large percentage of communication is non-verbal, it makes sense to keep this in check. There is a saying that ‘it is not what you say – it is how you say it’ and this could not be more important for a direct communicator.

For example, saying “That will not work” with crossed arms, a harsh tone and eye roll is a very different message than saying the same thing with open body language, a soft tone and a reflective facial expression. The first option could be perceived as hostile and negative and the second is more likely to be received as reflective and considered.

4. Be constructive and look for solutions

Unfortunately, many direct communicators hide behind their self-given tag of ‘direct’, when actually they are just aggressive or rude.

There is a clear difference between an appropriate direct communicator and one that simply has no filter or awareness of the impact of their words. Some direct communicators think that they are doing everyone a favour by ‘not sugar-coating it’, but they fail to see the damage. Many also fall into the trap of being direct without offering a solution.

For example:

  • a non-effective direct communicator may say, “this sales proposal is flawed and will not work”
  • an effective direct communicator may say, “this sales proposal is flawed and will not work in its current state. I would recommend that we add X,Y,Z to ensure it meets customer expectations. What are your thoughts?”.

The first is an example of a negative direct comment that does not provide any solutions. The second is still direct but is positioned in a more reflective and consultative manner. The key here is that it is okay to be direct when there is a consultative and solution orientated mindset.

5. Consider the preferred communication style of your audience

You may be the sort of person that likes to get to the point, cut out the fluff and call it like it is. There is nothing wrong with being direct, however for an interaction to be successful, the needs of both communicators needs to be considered.

The question here is – if non-direct communicators are supposed to just get to the point, then isn’t it fair enough that direct communicators also meet in the middle?

Finding some common ground and striking a balance between styles will generate stronger workplace relationships and enable the right solution to be identified quicker.

When you receive feedback that you are too direct

It is common for direct communicators to only learn that this is their personal brand in a performance review because peers have been too hesitant to raise it. This can be a difficult pill to swallow as most direct communicators see it as a strength and not a weakness.

If you receive this feedback, take a breath, and reflect on the below:

  • Could there be any truth to this feedback? How might I turn this into a strength?
  • What could be the impact of my actions on others if I adjust my style? And what would be the impact if I didn’t?
  • How receptive am I of feedback?
  • What damage could this be doing to my personal brand?
  • Will this be a hurdle for me to achieve further career success?
  • What are some small steps that I can take to improve?
  • What mechanism can I put into place to know if I’m improving?

A weakness is sometimes an overused strength

Constructive feedback can be hard to hear, particularly when it is about something that we feel is a strength. It is important to remember that a weakness is usually an overused strength that merely needs tweaking. There is no doubt that directness is empowering and can enhance professional success, but if that skill is overused others will perceive your directness lacks compassion and self-awareness. Choosing the right level of candour is worth the effort to maintain your style without damaging your brand.

Further information

For assistance with all your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information. Ai Group offers a range of training courses to support employees seeking to improve their leadership skills including communication. There is also an upcoming course on Communication skills offered through our digitial classroom.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior HR Content Editor – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.