Are You a Direct or Indirect Communicator?

Adapted from Secrets to Winning at Office Politics by Marie G. McIntyre, Ph.D.
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In your communication toolbox, direct and indirect skills are like a hammer and screwdriver: both are helpful, but you need to use the right tool at the right time. Trying to hang a picture with a screwdriver is frustrating. And not very effective.

1. Direct Communicators

“Direct Communicators” say exactly what they think and attempt to convince others that they are right. If you are more DIRECT, then you tend to…

  • Use clear, definitive statements.
  • Participate actively in meetings.
  • Make their points with conviction.
  • Are comfortable telling others what to do.
  • Use words like “should”, “have to”.
  • Tell others why their ideas should be adopted.

2. Indirect Communicators

“Indirect Communicators” are more likely to observe, ask questions, and present possibilities. If you are more INDIRECT, then you tend to . . .

  • Ask a lot of questions.
  • Quietly observe in meetings.
  • Offer suggestions for consideration.
  • Like to get others involved in discussions.
  • Use words like “maybe”, “possibly”.
  • Ask others to consider their ideas.

Most of us are naturally inclined to be either more direct or indirect, so we tend to overuse one set of skills and neglect the other. Consider the four influence strategies described below. Determine which ones you use most often and which you tend to avoid.

Direct Communication Skills

1. Persuade and Convince
How do con artists separate people from their money? How do preachers inspire people to live right and do good deeds? How do salespeople convince customers to buy their product? By being mastering the skills of direct persuasion.

To convince others, you must be willing to speak up and demonstrate confidence in your idea, product, or opinion. You also have to know your audience. Consider their goals, background, experiences, needs, and fears, then shape your communication accordingly.

To hold their interest, get them actively involved in the discussion. And remember that persuasion occurs not only through words, but also through tone, posture, and expression. So generate some excitement about your proposal! Paint a mental picture. Tell a story. Be upbeat and positive! But never forget that effective persuaders also know when to shut up and listen.

2. Order and Act
Sometimes you only get results by telling people exactly what needs to be done. This means being firm and clear, but never rude or offensive. “Order and act” can be an appropriate strategy whenever the situation calls for strong leadership. Some examples: working with people who lack experience, leading a group that has difficulty making decisions, dealing with an employee performance problem.

On the home front, use firm and direct communication to set clear limits for children or assertively deal with annoying relatives. But keep in mind that too much strong direction will provoke resistance and defensiveness when people feel they are being inappropriately ordered around. If the term “control freak” has ever been applied to you, then you may be over-using this strategy.

To maximize your ability to influence, you need to equip your communication toolbox with both direct and indirect skills. You must be able to make conscious choices about your behavior and not be blindly driven by your natural habits. So look for role models and practice the skills that are less comfortable for you. Developing any ability takes time and practice, so be patient with yourself and don’t give up. After all, you couldn’t drive a car the first time you got behind the wheel, but now you’re probably pretty good at it!

Indirect Communication Skills

1. Observe and Wait
The power of watchful waiting is often overlooked. Postponing action may feel like torture to people who are natural “do-ers”, but sometimes doing nothing is the wisest course. Careful observation can provide information about emotional reactions, interpersonal conflicts, political alliances, and power shifts.

In a meeting, monitoring topic changes and interpersonal undercurrents may reveal the perfect moment to make your point. Accurate and timely observations are essential to the influence process, since they enable you to select the most effective communication strategy for each situation. However, any strength carried to an extreme becomes a weakness. Too much waiting and observing will only convince others that you have nothing to say.

2. Ask and Listen
Successful consultants, counselors, and salespeople are masters of asking and listening. They understand that the more you know about another person, the more influential and helpful you can be. Artful questioning can help you fully understand others’ concerns, problems, values, or opinions.

Of course, asking questions is a pointless exercise unless you plan to listen to the answer. Think about your own conversations. When someone is speaking, do you really listen or are you mentally rehearsing your reply? Effective listening means being fully focused on the other person – not fidgeting, multi-tasking, or impatiently waiting for your turn to talk. But asking and listening can also be overdone. Too many questions can feel like an interrogation. And if you only listen, without ever sharing your own opinions, people may suspect that you have something to hide.