The Importance of Being Direct

Why do so many people find it difficult to be direct with others? Why do so many people prefer to sugar-coat an explanation instead of acknowledging the realities of a situation? Does it have something to do with people being aghast in “cancel culture” hysteria? Or does it have something to do with the deterioration of interpersonal skills and with people struggling to process constructive feedback? I would say it is the latter, and the inability to be direct with someone is likely to be a relationship killer.

Despite the fact that the thought of telling people things they might not want to hear can be a little unsettling, I believe people tend to have more appreciation and more respect for individuals who they know they can rely on to communicate openly with them, even when they are not going to like what they are going to hear.  Being direct with others may be difficult at first, but there are steps that anyone can take to get more comfortable in transacting with this form of truth currency, and it can provide an expedited path to getting ahead in life.

There is Nothing Pessimistic about Being Direct.

Although the internet is littered with materials on being direct, the majority of those pieces attempt to equate the approach to something akin to walking a tightrope, but that illustration could not be further from the truth.  Being direct has nothing to do with being rude or disrespectful, or making things personal.  Nor are there consequences for being direct.  This pessimistic approach to being direct contributes to the fear associated with doing so with others, and it takes away from what being direct is really about, and that is having enough respect for a person to tell them where things stand.

So, what exactly is being direct really about?  To start, being direct is a phrase used to describe a person as being straightforward and without a compromising or impairing element to them.  Being direct is not the same as being opinionated or outspoken because it focuses on the situation at hand, away from the person, and with an emphasis on the facts.  Even with the uniqueness of every person and every situation, some being more favorable for directness than others, as long as the directness is rooted in respect, open-mindedness, and tolerance, then there should be no challenges.  With this as the starting point, there is no need to worry about dancing around and managing sensitivities or controversies, nor will it ever lead to a respect- or honor-type duel.

A Suggestion Courtesy of Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education Program.

Back in 2021, I completed Harvard Kennedy School’s executive education program after completing my third and final course, which focused on creating collaborative solutions, and even touched on the idea of being direct.

This specific course had five components to it: strategic management in the public sector, adaptive leadership, public sector innovation, principled negotiation, and principled innovation.  Strategic management in the public sector centered around creating “public value propositions” that would command legitimacy and support from a variety of stakeholders.  Adaptive leadership focused on developing the necessary skills to be able to anticipate, to embrace and to shape change in a way that would mobilize the full resources of a community to deal with the problems it faces.  Public sector innovation was all about developing new, operational methods and governance arrangements that could increase the capacity of a society to deal with both emergent and intransigent problems.  Principled negotiation went beyond the traditional bargaining approach to building strong and resilient relationships with key partners.  Political innovation highlighted the need to find new ways to identify and engage with stakeholders to better define problems, and to identify and build support for more effective solutions.  And each of these were game-changing in their own way.

All of the program participants were eventually separated into smaller groups, and our group hit the jackpot when we found out that we would be coached by Dr. Sanderjin Cels.  What makes Dr. Cels so unique is that she is a historian by training, but there is a twist, her research focuses on change agents, legacy policies, and navigating multi-stakeholder environments to improve social outcomes.  One of the most important strategies Dr. Cels shared with us was her approach to providing constructive feedback, leading with a question, and her go-to was starting things off with, “Could it be…”  By leading with a question, instead of the traditional approach to providing constructive feedback that every one of us has been taught in school, the entire dynamic between people changes, and the compounding effect of this approach results in everyone thinking more.  By asking or inquiring about things, the focus stays on possibilities, and that approach demands more out of everyone involved.  The best thing about it is that it practically eliminates any possibility of people taking things personally.  And, as former hostage negotiator, Chris Voss, has stated before, it is impossible to be curious and mad at the same time.

At the end of the program, every participant was required to present to our peers and discuss our key takeaways with a three-minute-timed presentation, and everyone would be in one of three groups.  My key takeaways focused on the importance of helping others and by creating public value.  However, the only way to do that is by having respect and being honest with people, thus being direct.

Personally, I think one of the most disrespectful things a person can do is to be indirect, and I am specifically referring to the type of indirectness that occurs in a professional environment, and not anywhere else, where innuendos may be the way to go.  Being direct involves having another person’s best interests in mind and removing oneself from the equation.  It is far better, in my mind, to be a straight shooter than it is to curve bullets. Just watch the 2008 movie Wanted, where  Angelina Jolie’s character, curves a bullet so much that it comes back to bite her.  So be direct.