Direct communication—some are better at it than others, some uncomfortably dabble in it when necessary, and for some, the very phrase incites a visceral uneasiness.
Whether at home or in the workplace, in families, friendships, or romantic relationships, direct communication is necessary. However, direct communication is rarely taught and frequently avoided in the name of so-called “peace”—especially for women.
While on the surface people may avoid direct communication to maintain an atmosphere of benevolence, unfortunately this choice leaves many unsure how to kindly yet directly communicate their feelings, thoughts, and needs—an essential skill in all relationships. While on the internet, direct communication can be all too common (and all too direct) thanks to a phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect, direct communication in person is something many people are uncomfortable with.
Though it may be intimidating at first, with some therapist-approved tips and a little practice, you can become comfortable and confident with direct communication.
Less concern about your image
For those who are uncomfortable with direct communication, the first step is to worry less about how the other person will react or what she will think of you and instead focus on what needs to be said. While it’s important to keep in mind the other person’s perspective and needs, you’ll likely have to let go of what she will think of you in order to honestly verbalize your own needs, thoughts, or feelings.
Of course, no one wants to totally disregard the other person’s feelings, but often, worrying about what your friend, co-worker, or loved one will think of you is actually more about concern for your own image than concern over how the other person feels. So, in reality, worrying less about how the other person feels boils down to abandoning the temptation to hyper-focus on your own image.
To be able to speak honestly to someone you care about—whether that is to set a boundary or inform them of something they might not like hearing—you as the speaker have to become okay with not being seen as “nice” or “good” by everyone all the time. Dr. Brené Brown emphasizes this point: “We are not comfortable setting boundaries because we care more about what people will think, we don’t want to disappoint anyone, and we want everyone to like us.” You have to get comfortable with potentially hurting someone’s feelings or telling them something they might not want to hear in order to achieve a greater good.
For example, maybe you are nervous to talk to a co-worker about a mistake she made on a team project. You know she has good intentions and is a hard worker, and you are worried that pointing it out to her would offend her, or concerned about what she will think of you for doing so. Although pointing out the mistake may be uncomfortable, you recognize that not doing so would be to your company and team’s detriment. This is a good time to remind yourself of the good that’s at stake: by choosing direct communication, you are prioritizing the success of the company, even at the expense of your comfort.
Speak calmly and directly
Because many of us were never taught how to directly communicate with others, we may incorrectly assume that doing so always has to involve harsh words, hurt feelings, or angry emotions. On the contrary, direct communication can be perfectly amicable.
Even if you convey something of serious emotional weight—for example, how someone has hurt or wronged you—you can speak calmly and directly. While you need not pad what you say with qualifiers or unnecessary apologies, you also can speak lovingly, without malice or anger. In fact, speaking calmly and directly makes your message more likely to be heard and actually listened to. If your message is padded with fluff so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings, your message may not be accurately conveyed. On the other hand, if the conversation is loaded with emotions, your message may also be lost, as strong emotions can cloud the other person’s hearing or incite strong emotions in her as well, keeping her from hearing you.
If you do feel emotional, take some time—even a moment—to collect yourself before entering the conversation. Take deep belly breaths with long exhales; inhale and count to four as your belly rises, then exhale to the count of eight as your belly falls. If you have some time leading up to the conversation, you can also journal, meditate, pray, cry, or take an energetic walk or run to help take the edge off any strong emotions. Allow yourself to fully feel those emotions and get them out physically before entering the conversation so you are able to approach it calmly.
Don’t wait until the pot is boiling
In order to voice needs or desires calmly, you cannot wait until you have been pushed too far.
If one end of the spectrum of direct communication is passively avoiding it altogether, the other end is speaking directly and aggressively, even losing your temper. The former involves too much focus on how the other person will receive our words, and the latter involves actual disregard for the other person’s thoughts, feelings, or needs.
Some people who haven’t been taught effective direct communication end up using it aggressively rather than avoiding it altogether. But even people who tend to avoid direct communication most of the time may end up angrily voicing their concerns when their personal boundaries have been violated too many times and they decide they’ve had enough. When you don’t speak up when your boundaries are crossed or always refrain from voicing your thoughts for the sake of so-called peace, you may reach a point when your emotions finally boil over and you end up communicating directly, but angrily.
When you continually don’t honor that little voice inside you that nudges you to say something, that little voice can become a big, loud voice out of seemingly nowhere. While this is still direct communication, we all know that it’s not the optimal way to get a point across. Thus, in order to be heard and respected, in order to speak calmly and directly, you can’t wait until your internal pot is boiling.
Which would you prefer?
Often, what people do instead of direct communication is vent or gossip about the problematic situation to a friend, co-worker, or loved one. Try putting yourself in the shoes of the person you’re avoiding directly speaking to—would you rather someone talk to you directly about an issue you’re involved in (even though it might be somewhat awkward or uncomfortable), or would you rather avoid the direct discomfort but have the person talk to others behind your back?
Most people would rather have someone talk to them directly so they know what they did and can correct it, and then have the chance to share their thoughts and response (if necessary or relevant). If someone just talks about an issue behind your back, you never get the chance to actually address or solve the problem—in fact, you might not even know there’s an issue.
Follow this formula
If you’re unsure of where to start when trying to calmly voice your needs or concerns to someone, try speaking in I-statements to avoid coming across as accusing. Try the following formula: “I feel (emotion) when you (action), because (reason). I need (something actionable for the other person).”
When you start with how you are feeling via an I-statement, the other person is less likely to feel defensive or put up their guard, because you’re not starting with an accusation. The next part of the statement offers a direct way to communicate how the other person is responsible for making you feel this way and why it is hurtful to you. Then, a second statement offers a solution—what you need or want instead of what is currently being done.
Be careful not to fall into the trap of thinly-veiled you-statements: “I feel that you are doing this wrong,” or “I feel that you are being so mean.” Such statements do not actually convey your feelings; they are just saying “you are wrong” or “you are mean.” To avoid this, make sure you follow “I feel” with an actual emotion.
While it’s often challenging, direct communication is a highly useful and necessary skill for all the relationships in your life. If you find it exceptionally difficult to speak directly to others, consider working with a therapist on this skill. If you have a specific interpersonal problem, you can even work with a therapist trained to work with multiple people in the room (such as a marriage and family therapist) and invite the other person to one or more of your sessions.
Regardless of how you get there, when you do become comfortable directly communicating with others, you’ll find that your relationships will be easier and your boundaries will be honored.