Should you be direct or politically correct when delivering a tough message?

Grace can be direct when she needs to be!

Grace has her ways of getting my attention when she wants it. If her first approach isn’t successful, she’ll try again, more directly. You need to assess the players, the timing, and the situation in order to know what style is going to be most effective.

Grace has a way of getting my attention when she wants something. Sometimes she’s diplomatic (positioning her body within view, perhaps even touching mine, coupled with a long, meaningful stare) and other times she can be very direct (incessant whining that she must know drives me over-the-top ‘will-you-please-STOP-that’ nuts).

Her first attempt to communicate her need is subtle, unobtrusive, and well, polite. But she has no qualms of escalating her delivery if she’s not getting what she needs out of me. As human communicators, we need to be more aware of that ebb and flow when we interact — in both directions.

Being direct doesn’t have to be obnoxious, but it can often come off that way. And being diplomatic can make you look like a wimp. You need to guard against both. It’s important to balance your delivery to match the situation and find ways that are palatable to the person on the receiving end of the interaction.

The most effective approach for Grace in delivering her message depends on how receptive I am to what she’s saying at the specific time that she’s speaking.

Sometimes I don’t catch the early signals of her delivery as soon as I should, at which point she escalates her antics until she has captured my attention. If I miss her subtle communication, she’ll get more animated. Not everyone does that, though. Lots of time each party will walk away thinking they’ve understood the conversation but find out later that vast differences exist for what was said (or not said) and what was heard.

When you want to deliver a tough message, you have to gauge your audience and how sensitive the topic could be for them. The more delicate the subject, the more you need to include diplomacy. But you also can’t wimp out. Too much sugar-coating hides your intent, is not authentic, and creates a high probability of misunderstanding.

Grace doesn’t worry about hurting my feelings. But with humans, emotions need to be part of the equation. We need to recognize who we are talking with. For example, a more assertive person will want to hear the message without the fluff. A less assertive person is apt to want a softer approach before you race into a dicey subject.

Here are my tips for how to find the right balance:

Best times to lean towards a direct approach:

  • When talking with an assertive person who wants the straight scoop and they want it quick. Don’t beat around the bush or soft pedal your words. Deliver your message clearly and without any superfluous language.
  • When the receiver may not be open to hearing the message. If you soften a tough message, it can more easily be dismissed by someone who isn’t ready to hear it.

Best times to lean towards a diplomatic approach:

  • When talking with a person who is sensitive and/or needs more time to process change.
  • When delivering a highly charged topic. Emotions are very important to consider; you should anticipate how delicate the subject is for the parties involved. Diplomacy creates the atmosphere that you care and illustrates that you aren’t steamrolling through a topic.

Whenever possible, it’s best to be both direct and diplomatic. But there are times when you need to lean heavier on one side than the other. What are aspects that are important to you as you decide the most effective delivery of a tough message?

Grace is shy but she can sure be direct when she wants to be. What about you?

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  1. Kristina on October 17, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Thank you for these VERY helpful and insightful tips – they are good choices to consider in any given situation, whether business or personal.

    • Robin on October 17, 2014 at 10:06 am

      So glad to hear these tips are helpful, Kristina! I always appreciate when someone stops by with feedback, so thank you. It’s an excellent point that our communication skills carry over in all aspects of our lives. Thanks again for your input.

  2. Michelle on October 17, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Great reminder to more carefully consider the most effective delivery method given the recipient.

    • Robin on October 17, 2014 at 11:16 am

      Thanks, Michelle! It’s not easy to remember because we often slip back into what is most comfortable for ourselves. I know I am guilty of that!

  3. Maryann on October 17, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Great topic and advice, Robin. I know I favor the direct approach most often (and not always correctly :)) but tend not to use it in the second case where I should and you’re right – it can cause the issue to get dismissed if too soft pedaled. Grace is such a great teacher – Happy Belated Birthday to her!!!

    • Robin on October 17, 2014 at 11:18 am

      Great to hear from you, Maryann! Thanks for stopping by with your input and for the birthday wishes. We’re celebrating all month so you’re not late at all! Grace says hello, too!

  4. Donna Brand on October 18, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Thanks for this topic, Robin..I lean on the side of diplomacy, pretty much always, and it’s not always effective. This has gotten me thinking more about that.

    • Robin on October 18, 2014 at 11:18 am

      That’s my natural inclination, too, Donna, so I can really relate to your comment. I had a situation this week where someone let me know I was being a bit too diplomatic, which got me thinking about this topic. I love your openness to think about other possibilities. I suppose we always need to speak our truth, but do it with grace.

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