You’re “too” direct


You're “too” direct.  Has anyone ever said that to you?

First of all, before I comment on it, I’d like to point out that any feedback that starts with the word “too”, is never going to be good.  They never say, “You're too interesting, you’re too fabulous, you’re too much of a leader, you’re too dependable.”   Whenever you hear the word “too”, it always means something bad is coming right after it.

This past week I had many people calling about our Causative Communication Live! workshop and a number of them said, “I've gotten feedback that I'm too direct.”

I laugh when I hear this because I know I’m probably 5 times more direct than they are, but no one ever tells me I’m too direct.  I’m happy to teach them how I do it.  They’re getting into trouble because they just don’t understand what being direct is all about and how to do it effectively.

In the dictionary, direct is defined as “proceeding in a straight line or arriving by the shortest course.”  It means “straight”.  How could that be bad?

Direct comes from the Latin word directus meaning “straight” and “set straight”.  To set straight means to make certain someone knows the REAL facts about a situation.

How could that be bad? How could you be doing too much of it?

Well, if you’re being told this, the problem is NOT that you’re too direct.  The problem is that you’re doing something else that’s upsetting.  I have found that most of the time when people are being told they’re “too direct”, they’re not being direct AT ALL.

For example, this happened today.  One of my clients, a Senior Director named Bill (not his real name), is going to an offsite this coming week.  His boss, a VP, has asked his team of direct reports to each prepare a question to ask him that will promote better understanding between him and the team.  The VP said, “This is your opportunity where you can ask me ANYTHING.”

Bill, who’s been frequently told he’s too direct, was planning to ask the VP, "Why do you tolerate mediocre performance from others?"  Bill really wanted to know the answer to this question, but was concerned he might be perceived as being too direct by asking it, so he asked me what I thought.

I told Bill he wasn't actually being direct at all by asking this question.  The problem with the question was that it was too INDIRECT.  The reason I say that is because it wasn’t going to lead him DIRECTLY to his desired outcome.  It was going to take him somewhere he DIDN’T want to go.  Let me explain.

I asked him what outcome he wanted. Bill said, “My boss holds himself to an extremely high standard.  But he doesn’t hold others to that standard, which causes our team to have mediocre performance.” The outcome Bill wanted was for the boss to hold EVERYONE to high standards so that he could be part of a high-performing team.

Another aspect of this that created a problem was that, because the boss wasn’t holding the team accountable, Bill ended up trying himself to hold everyone on the team accountable and this was creating problems because he wasn’t really in a position to do it – you can imagine the problems he was having I’m sure, everyone was ignoring him.

I explained to Bill that asking, “Why?”  was not going to get him that outcome of the VP holding everyone to a high standard. It was not the direct way to get the outcome. 

First of all, he didn’t need to ask his VP, “Why?”  I can answer, “Why?” for him.

There are two parts to the answer.

  1. I’ve coached enough people to know the VP doesn't have any idea why he tolerates mediocre performance. So if you ask him that question, he's just going to DEFEND and JUSTIFY, but not give you the real root cause.

The ONLY time it's safe to ask, “Why?”  is when the person KNOWS the root cause. So, for example, if I ask my gardener, “Why did that azalea bush die?” He might say something like, “You didn’t water it.”  In this context, the question makes sense because my gardener knows the root cause.

One of my clients recently discovered her son is doing drugs. She’s been asking him why he’s doing drugs. I’m sure he has no idea.  He’s going to try to pull reasons out of thin air to satisfy her.  He’s going to look for ways he’s been victimized.  He’ll justify and defend.  But none of these mean he knows the REAL reason why.

Asking “Why?” can also upset people.  In the VP example, you can see how he could easily be upset by being asked, “Why do you tolerate mediocrity?”

2. I can tell you why the boss is tolerating mediocrity, you don’t even need to ask that question. The VP is tolerating mediocrity because he doesn't have the skills to do anything about it. He probably doesn't even know what those skills are. 

As someone who’s coached people for 30 years, I can assure you the reason they are doing what they're doing is because they don't have the skills to do something else.

As soon as they have the skills, they WILL do something else. I see this ALL the time.

People mistakenly assume the other person doesn't WANT to do something else. That’s not at all my experience. If this boss has high standards for himself, which I believe he does, then I don't believe he wants to tolerate mediocrity in other people. That would be terrible!  If you have high standards, you hate tolerating mediocrity in your direct reports.  It makes you crazy!  I just don't believe he has the skills to do anything about it. 

So if Bill wants to be direct about achieving the real outcome that he wants, what’s the RIGHT question to ask?  What’s the most DIRECT question to get to his outcome?

I suggested saying this, “You set such a high standard for yourself, what would it take for you to set the same standard for everyone else and make sure that everyone else achieves that high standard?”

I’m not saying this is ALWAYS the right question.  I don’t believe EVER in tactics, techniques, or gimmicks when it comes to people and relationships.  And I don’t teach, “Always ask this question ….”  I just don’t think human beings operate that way. 

I believe it takes a lot of skill and judgment to know the right questions to ask and when you understand the science of relationships and have these skills, you’ll KNOW the right question to ask.  And it won’t be the same one every time.

This particular question of “What would it take …?”  is MORE DIRECT than the question he was originally thinking of asking.  It's a better question. The reason is because it puts the focus on the outcome and what’s needed to achieve it.  It bypasses asking a question that the VP can not only not answer, but one that will just make him defensive and justify what he’s doing.  This question bypasses upsetting the VP and gets to the desired outcome directly.

Most of the people I coach who have been told that they’re too direct are making similar mistakes.

Just as an aside, most of the people I coach fall into 1 of 2 camps.  They’re either told they’re “too direct” or that they “don’t speak up enough” (or they “don’t speak up clearly”). 

Both camps are missing the skills they need to be successfully direct.

There are about 7 different skills that you need to master to be EXTREMELY DIRECT yet VERY WELL RECEIVED. 

In other words, after you’ve been direct, the other person says to you, “Thank you, that was VERY helpful.”  Or, “Thank you, that was very powerful.”  In other words, they are GRATEFUL that you were direct, and you made CHANGE happen.

I’ll be talking about these skills in next week’s issue of Causative Communication.

Being direct is GOOD. You just need to be aware of and make sure you master ALL the skills needed to make you EFFECTIVE at it. 

And then you’re going to find being direct to be exhilarating and productive and people are going to say to you, “You really helped me.”

Master these skills and go ahead and be VERY direct!

The power to transform any situation or any person begins with your ability to assume the cause role in your communications. 

Be the cause!