Straightforwardness is a trait I’ve always admired in others but have never been great at myself. When a friend asks what I think of her writing, I don’t tell her it’s confusing. I tell her what she wants to hear: “It’s great!” When I go on a few dates with a chronic interrupter, I don’t tell him this habit is obnoxious, and it might turn off other people, too. I give him the old, “I’m just not ready for a relationship right now.”
You’ve probably been there, too. Maybe a co-worker took credit for your work and you didn’t speak up. Or maybe an employee couldn’t take initiative and instead of telling her how to improve, you let her go and blamed it on budget constraints. It feels like the nice thing to do.
Is it, though? You’re trying to protect the other person’s feelings, but the truth often is that you’re just as concerned about protecting your own feelings. No one likes to feel uncomfortable, and no one enjoys an awkward conversation. And yet there are clear benefits to being straightforward: Not only does it feel good to get things off your chest, but being direct also helps other people improve in areas they may not realize need improvement. How could my friend figure out how to improve her writing if no one ever told her it needed work?
When you do it right, assertiveness is a way of communicating without infringing on someone else’s rights or ignoring your own. If you need to speak with an employee about their poor performance, for example, it helps to remember this. In telling them the truth, you’re not exactly being mean — you’re being honest, primarily for their sake. They can’t fix a problem with their behavior if they don’t know the problem exists.
It’s possible to be both blunt and kind, however. Here’s how, arranged by various levels of commitment.
How to Be a Little More Direct
In 1973, linguistics professor Robin Lakoff suggested the “Rules of Pragmatic Competence” for socially acceptable language. The rules are these: Be clear and be polite. Simple enough, but some of us tend to err on the side of politeness, giving up clarity. Lakoff wrote, “when clarity conflicts with politeness, in most cases … politeness supersedes. It is considered more important to avoid offense than to achieve clarity.” So when you’re in a conversation in which you want to speak directly, it can help to do a gut check. Ask yourself: am I sacrificing clarity for the sake of politeness? This can help you avoid veering into ambiguous, indirect territory. For example, when I attempted to be direct with my friend about her writing skills, I vaguely told her that maybe she could organize her ideas better, but that I was nitpicking, leading her to believe that her writing was damn near perfect.
Or, consider the classic “I statement” advice: use the word “I” instead of “you,” suggests Bina Bird, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Texas. “Start your statements with ‘I’ and focus on your own thoughts and feelings about the situation,” she says. “This way you are not coming across as accusatory but are simply focusing on your own experience.” Instead of, “You are always asking me to help volunteer on projects and you need to find someone else,” try something like, “I’m not going to be able to help out with the presentation next week. I have a lot going on and think it’s best that I don’t take on another project.” That response is polite, but still direct. All it takes is a simple “I.”
How to Be Blunt
Direct speakers take less time and use fewer words to get to the point. So keep your words short and sweet. “Avoid trying to over explain your reason for saying ‘no’ or appearing overly apologetic,” Bird says. “A simple, ‘I’m not going to be able to participate because it doesn’t work for me right now’ is better than listing off ten reasons why you can’t participate.”
You can express assertiveness with non-verbal communication, too. Maintain eye contact, face the person you’re talking to, and speak clearly and loud enough for them to hear you. Also, while assertiveness requires speaking your mind, listening is also important. The goal is to be honest without forcing your thoughts on someone else, so give them a chance to reply to your feedback, too. Listening might make it easier for you to get to the point — if you know you’ll give the other person the floor, you won’t feel as aggressive or guilty for being blunt.
How to Be Direct When It’s Difficult
Assertiveness can be trickier depending on the conversation, though. Telling your friend the truth about her new haircut is one thing; confronting a co-worker about habitually taking credit for your work is a whole other beast. First, accept the fact that it’s going to be awkward. “Difficult conversations are going to be uncomfortable especially if you aren’t used to being assertive,” Bird says. “If you wait until you have no anxiety or discomfort, then the conversation may never happen.”
The more you have direct conversations, the easier they become. So start small. Practice your directness when the stakes are low. When an acquaintance asks, “Where do you want to meet?,” tell her you’d love to go to that place downtown, instead of batting the question back and forth for a half hour (“I’m good with whatever!”). When the waiter asks, “Is this table okay?” tell him you’d prefer the table by the window. For people who are already assertive, this exercise probably seems a little ridiculous. But if you’re new to being blunt, this is an easy way to practice being direct so that you’re comfortable with taking it to the next level.
Once you’re ready to have that difficult conversation, it might make it easier to preface it with a disclaimer. This can be particularly useful if the subject is not used to you speaking directly. “Open up the conversation by even stating to the other person that you need to talk to them about something that is difficult to talk about,” Bird says. Tell them you prefer honesty because you want to avoid building resentment or workplace awkwardness. If the subject of your confrontation is a friend or family member, let them know you value the relationship enough to be honest with them. “By taking this approach, you’re showing them that you do care enough the relationship to bring issues to their attention rather than letting it impact the relationship,” Bird says.
And here’s something that might calm your anxiety: Research shows that when you think you’re being confrontational, you’re not. A study from Columbia University found that people often overestimate how aggressive and assertive they come across as. “Many people seen as appropriately assertive by counterparts mistakenly thought they were seen as having been over-assertive, a novel effect we call the line crossing illusion,” the researchers wrote. “Of those seen as under-assertive, 57 percent thought their counterparts viewed them as appropriately assertive or over-assertive.” In other words, subjects in the study thought they were being totally brash, but the people they were talking to didn’t see it that way at all. (That said, the study also found the opposite was true for aggressive people: They underestimated their level of assertiveness.) Chances are, if you’re an indirect, polite communicator, no one thinks you’re being confrontational, even when you think you’re being confrontational.
Finally, if you feel anxious or afraid to be blunt, remember: Most people prefer you speak with them directly. Directness, after all, can usually serve as a synonym for honesty. It’s a way of being polite and respectful, which then motivates people to treat you the same way. Bird adds, “The more you assert yourself and practice communicating the more others will respect you, even if they don’t like or agree with what you have to say.” As painful as it might be for your subject to hear the truth, giving it to them straight is often the kind thing to do. Just don’t be a jerk about it.