Direct and Indirect Communication Styles

Differences in communication styles creates misunderstandings between people. It breaks up marriages, causes conflict at work, and ends friendships. Direct and indirect people are often at odds with each other.

 Indirect Communication Style

An indirect person’s world revolves around social relationships. They actively avoid hurting, embarrassing, or dominating others. They convey what they are thinking primarily through nonverbal cues.

They use pauses, silence, tone of voice, and body language to convey how they feel. They read between the lines and expect others to as well.

An indirect person wants harmony and avoids conflict and tension. They don’t want uncomfortable situations or hurt feelings. They value kindness and consideration.

If the truth will hurt someone’s feelings, an indirect person will find a way to soften the impact or won’t say anything at all. They hate saying no and will do whatever they can to accommodate others.

Indirect people enjoy relationships where people are interdependent on each other, not independent of one another.

Direct Communication Style

The direct person’s goal is independence, even in relationships. They enjoy making decisions independently and will pursue their own interests even if it causes stress in the relationship. If they do make sacrifices, they often resent it.

Direct people are not afraid of conflict and will openly and freely disagree with others; even those in authority. They believe honesty is the best policy and don’t get their feelings hurt easily.

Direct communicators take what other’s say at face value and don’t read a lot into what people say. Because they speak freely, they assume others will too, so they don’t watch non-verbal communication closely. The meaning of you pausing before saying yes is lost on them.

Direct people will often sacrifice relationships in pursuit of their personal goals, whereas indirect people will sacrifice personal goals for the sake of relationships.

Direct and indirect people often have conflicting priorities and see the role of the relationship differently. Direct people see relationships as helping them meet their goals. Indirect people see the relationship as being the goal.

 Problems Arise

An indirect person often perceives the direct person as rude, pushy, abrasive, and selfish. The direct person perceives the indirect person as wishy washy, manipulative, and weak.

Employees accuse bosses or co-workers of bullying, wives accuse husbands of intimidation, husband’s accuse wives of manipulation, often because of misinterpreting the meaning behind the other’s communication style.

 What’s the Solution?

Neither style is right or wrong. Each style has advantages and disadvantages. The key to successful relationships is understanding the other person’s style and not assuming that your way is the right way.

Indirect people are happiest communicating with indirect people. They read each other’s cues and watch for subtlety in the other. They perceive each other as respectful, kind, and compassionate.

Direct people enjoy direct people. They are able to express themselves freely without having to worry about hurting the other’s feelings. They can appreciate a good argument or debate without being accused of being intimidating or aggressive.

Regardless of their preferred style, many people end up in relationships with someone of the opposite style. Initially, the direct person appreciates the warmth and compassion of the indirect person. The indirect person finds the directness interesting and exciting.

Over time, the indirect person doesn’t feel their emotional needs are getting met. The direct person begins to feel their independence is compromised. Resentments often develop.

If a direct person learns to soften their approach and pay attention to subtleties, and the indirect person learns to speak more directly, these relationships can be satisfying.

Research on Cultural and Gender Differences

Deborah Tannen, PhD., has researched the subject of direct and indirect communication styles extensively. In her book “You Just Don’t Understand,” she states that men are often rewarded for being direct, while women get rewarded for being indirect. Direct women and indirect men are often viewed less favorably.

Asian and Indigenous cultures are more indirect and interdependent. They value cooperation, respect, and saving face. European cultures tend to value independence.

People’s communication styles often change over time. As they age, a direct person may become more relationship focused. An indirect person over time, may put a higher priority on their independence. We are not locked into a particular style and we can learn to adjust to other people’s styles.

DBT Skills: F.A.S.T and G.I.V.E

In effective communication, we have three goals to keep in mind; being effective, preserving relationships, and preserving our self esteem. FAST is an acronym to help you remember the steps in preserving your self respect. 1) Be Fair to the other person and to yourself when trying to get what you want 2)  Don’t Apologize for what you want or the way you feel. Only apologize for your behaviour if it wasn’t fair or effective, 3) Stick to your values and don’t compromise on your integrity, 4) be Truthful. This doesn’t mean you have to say whatever you think, but what you do say should be the truth and not a lie.

The GIVE skills help us to preserve the relationship with the other person. 1) Be Gentle, nice and respectful in your approach; no attacks, threats, or judging, 2) Act Interested by listening attentively and reading between the lines, 3) Validate the othr person’s perspective; let them know you understand how they feel,  3) Use an Easy manner; be lighthearted when approaching someone with a complaint.

“Honest differences are a sign of healthy progress.” Mahatma Ghandi

If you have an experience you’d like to share, add a comment at the bottom of the page. I’d love to hear from you.

Related Posts

Does Your Directness Get you in Trouble?

Does Someone You Know Lack Empathy and Insight?

Does Judging Increase Stress?

Additional Resources:

How to Be Assertive

How Assertive Are You? Quiz

Improving Communication

Communication Styles at Work

A video of Deborah Tannen talking about status and connection

Author: Jenny

I am a counsellor at Walmsley Counselling Agency in Prince George, BC. I have a Master’s Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.