Does Your Directness Get You in Trouble?


Sometimes a person comes for counselling, not because they want to, but because someone else insists they improve their communication skills.

I saw a man whose employer sent him to counselling, or to what my client jokingly called “charm school.” He was a supervisor and some of his employees complained he was rude, intimidating, and demeaning. He liked his employees, cared about them, and was hurt and confused by the accusations. He wanted to be a good supervisor, and more importantly, he wanted to keep his job.

Direct is not Always Effective

After exploring this client’s communication style, it seemed he wasn’t a bully as much as he was too blunt. We talked about direct and indirect communication and I encouraged him to adopt a more “charming” stance; not because he was necessarily wrong, but because he wasn’t effective and he was destroying relationships.

If you are direct like my client, you are probably opinionated and have strong judgments about how things should be done. You value your independence and like being able to speak your mind. You find some people over-sensitive and hate having to tip-toe around them. To be fair, not everyone has problems with you; just people who get their feelings hurt easily.

You probably appreciate people who stand up to you, argue back, and who can enjoy a heated discussion without getting offended. Unfortunately, that’s only roughly half the population.

If you want to avoid harming relationships while getting what you want, you need to learn a better way to get your point across.

Three Goals in Communication

There are three goals to keep in mind when communicating; being effective, maintaining relationships, and maintaining self-respect.

Direct people often approach communication as if maintaining their self-respect is the only important goal. They will not compromise, back down, or readily admit to being wrong. They feel good when they can prove in an argument that they are right; even if the only one they prove it to is themselves.

It’s not that preserving relationships and being effective isn’t important to the direct person; it’s just they don’t know how to meet all three goals simultaneously.

Marsha Linehan’s (DBT) DEAR MAN acronym is a useful tool for learning and remembering the three goals of interpersonal communication.


1. Describe

When you see something you don’t like, describe it as factually as possible. Stick to the facts and avoid judgment.

“I went into the kitchen to make a sandwich and your food was on the counter and your dirty dishes were in the sink.”

The facts make it hard for the person to deny the situation. By not judging, you decrease defensiveness and make it easier for them to offer an explanation or apology.

Sometimes stating the facts is enough to resolve the issue. In other circumstances it might be necessary to express your feelings or thoughts to decrease the chances of it happening again.

2. Express

Express your thoughts or feelings without turning them into an accusation. If you find it annoying to clean up someone else’s lunch mess, that is a fact, not a judgment. It’s possible to be annoyed without judging the other person. Make sure you convey non-judgment not only by what you say, but through your facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures.

3. Assert

Say clearly what you want to happen in the future. “I want you to clean up right after you eat so I can prepare my lunch without having to clean up first.”  Be matter-of-fact when you assert yourself. It is tempting to assume the other person is wrong and to want to express your disapproval. Stay non-judgmental.

4. Reinforce

It’s important to reinforce your request with something positive. The reinforcement softens your request and makes it more likely the person will comply. Something as simple as, “I would really appreciate it,” is reinforcing. A positive comment helps the person feel good about doing what you want, and restores positive feelings.

The DEAR part of the skills tells you what you do to communicate effectively and respectfully. The MAN part of the skills tells you how you communicate.

1. Stay Mindful

When we are mindful we pause and think about what we are about to say. We make sure that we are not judging, making assumptions, or behaving reactively. If the other person responds defensively or angrily, we keep our own emotions in check. We stay on track and don’t let ourselves get sidetracked by irrelevant topics.

If you respond to the other person with defensiveness or aggression, you will probably not get what you were asking for, and you increase the chances of creating hard feelings.

2. Appear Confident

The direct person needs to work on being confident, not arrogant, and the indirect person needs to work on being confident, not passive. Both styles need to strike the right balance. When you are confident you know you have a right to ask for what you want. You know that making a request doesn’t guarantee you will get what you want. Assertive people accept that they can’t make anyone do anything, so diplomacy is necessary.

3. Negotiate

No matter how reasonable your perspective is, the other person has their own perspective that is likely just as compelling to them. “I only have half an hour lunch so I don’t always have time to clean up right after I eat. I come back on my break to do it.”

Rather than arguing about whose perspective is “right,” you may need to negotiate. Before you negotiate, hear the other person’s side and appreciate the truth in their perspective, regardless of how it conflicts with your own.

 Putting it all together

Not judging is a hard concept for some people to get their mind around. Think of it this way; we all get annoyed when the rain ruins our plans, but rarely do we assume it’s wrong to rain or that it shouldn’t rain.

If we could negotiate with the rain man we would probably say, “I know we need rain for things to grow (describe), but I really want to enjoy the outdoors today because I’m going fishing (express). Do you think you could rain tomorrow instead? (assert). I would really appreciate it” (reinforce).

We all know the rain man doesn’t care what we need or want, but people often do; especially when we ask using the Dear Man skills.

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”

Mahatma Gandhi

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.

For more information on this topic, read the related posts and links below. For specific DBT skills go to DBT Skills in the menu bar.

Related Posts

Direct and Indirect Communication Styles

Does Judging Increase Stress?

Additional Resources

Improving Communication at Work or at Home

14 Very Effective Communication Skills

Communication Skills for Workplace Success

Author: Jenny dereis

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 and a certificate in Substance Misuse and a certificate in Working with Survivors of Sexual Abuse. I am currently working towards certification in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.