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On Bluntness

How to be Direct in an Emotionally Intelligent Way

As far as I know, I’ve always been seen as blunt. I don’t know if I was the kid in the grocery store loudly pointing out embarrassing observations about random strangers nearby, but I did often surprise adults with what came out of my mouth. As I got older, however, I got better at perceiving the discomfort my bluntness would cause the people around me, especially my peers. Part of this was because as a young person I just thought it was really funny to be

obnoxious and I didn’t care to understand how this affected others. But mostly I had to recognize that I lacked awareness and respect for social norms, especially as the norms continued to change. It took me longer than others to catch up and recognize why these things mattered and why I needed to change. Maybe you’ve been in the same boat, or take pride in always calling it like you see it, or always being the one to say what you think everyone’s thinking. That can be an effective way to communicate in some settings, but more than likely you’re not seeing such good results in other settings, like a corporate office or even in your personal life. If you’re interested in changing that, read on!

What is your motivation?

The best place to start when examining our own unique way of communicating is to understand our motivations. If you see your boss is headed down a path that might make you look bad, at what point do you speak up? Do you do it to save yourself or to save your boss? Will speaking up benefit the company, your coworkers, or will it only benefit you? In a situation with lower stakes (but no less important) your coworker got a new haircut and you don’t think it looks very good. Will it help them in any way if you say so? Are you concerned that everyone who is complimenting them for this haircut is lying and just trying to make them feel better?

Understanding your motivations for speaking up means thinking before you speak, even if that’s only for a few seconds. Being emotionally intelligent requires a certain amount of self-reflection because most of us can’t just impulsively say the exact right thing at just the right moment every time. We have to slow down for a moment or two and ask ourselves: Why should I say this? Is my motivation pure? Will this other person benefit from what I want to say? Don’t be afraid to question yourself, even if you don’t like the answers, because examining ourselves is a crucial step in our personal growth. When I began to make the effort to alter how I communicated with others, particularly in professional settings, I became much more confident that my message was getting across, and I felt more conscious about making sure the other person understood me, rather than just saying whatever popped into my head. Seeing others have an easier time hearing and understanding my ideas gave me motivation to keep improving.

Context matters

Just like motivation, context is hugely important for people who are particularly blunt communicators. Consider where you’re at and what’s going on before you say something. Maybe you’re in a meeting and you’re there because your opinion is important, and you notice a manager is making some problematic assumptions. The conversation is moving quickly though and if you don’t speak up right away it’ll be too late. Or will it? Your opinion carries weight, but if you accidentally offend this manager it could cause problems for you at this company. But you do want other people present at the meeting to know that this manager’s assumptions are incorrect. Do you speak now or do you speak to the manager one-on-one later and then discuss the issue with the other people at the meeting separately?

Ultimately, it depends on a myriad of factors that will be different for every person, every company, every meeting. You still have to use your best judgment and make a decision in the moment. The important thing is to make sure you’re assessing the context of the situation first, even if it’s only for a split second. Sometimes that split second can save you from making a mistake you’d come to regret.

Get to know your coworkers

It’s a lot harder to know how to communicate with people if you don’t know them very well. Get to know your coworkers and observe how they interact with each other and with you. It’s not always possible or feasible to ask people directly how they prefer to communicate, but being mindful and noticing it on your own will help you a lot in figuring out how blunt and direct to be, especially with your boss and your team. It’s also okay to give them a heads up that sometimes you can be too blunt and you’d appreciate feedback when that happens so you can make adjustments. This might be hard if you don’t see anything wrong with being blunt or feel like it’s better to always be completely honest, but I can promise you it will improve your interactions with other people in countless ways both big and small.

If you’re more introverted and/or neuro-divergent (ie, you have autism, ADHD, etc), the idea of getting to know your coworkers might be especially daunting, particularly if you work for a large company. I’m not saying you need to take each person out for dinner and grill them about their life though. Just observe how they are at work, how they communicate over email, Zoom, in meetings, etc. This is probably something you’re doing anyway, but on a subconscious level. I recommend that you do it consciously and focus most of your attention on the people you’ll be working with most often. Make note of each person’s background, like whether they come from a different culture to you, or even if they simply have less experience in your industry. Get to know each person as an individual, because that’s what they are. Even people who seem very similar will still be fundamentally different in core ways (except some twins).

Be yourself, but de-center yourself

Hopefully you work at a company where you feel comfortable being yourself and you’re reading this because you just want to improve a little but still fundamentally be the same person. That’s fantastic! It really matters that we work at jobs where we are valued and respected for being ourselves and not having to put on a facade.

However, it’s important to remember that you’re part of a team, which means that sometimes you have to consider the needs of your team above your need to be blunt and direct. If you feel like you need to say something that could be controversial or harsh, make sure it’s coming from a good place and will ultimately benefit the person or people you’re saying it to. Being able to be very honest with others can be a gift because they can rely on you to tell the truth, but if you only speak up for selfish reasons, you are probably not going to help anyone. Be honest, but do so with care and respect.

That being said, there is immense value in being direct and assertive when working on a team. To walk the line between blunt and direct, go back to your motivation and ask yourself whether the thing you’re about to say will benefit your team, your company, your customers. If this thing will probably only benefit you, then maybe you’re just feeling a little spicy and about to be blunt in a way that could be harmful either to you or to someone else. If you have a point to make that needs to be heard and will benefit others, plus you can say it in a thoughtful way, then you’re probably being direct and seeing a problem that needs to be highlighted.

Ultimately it always comes down to judgement. Yours will improve over time as you get to know people and take the time and care to understand them. There will always be people you can absolutely be blunt with almost all of the time because they’ll know you don’t mean harm. In a workplace setting though, you can’t necessarily expect people to always get you in the same way, and concise, clear, direct communication is critical, especially if you work somewhere that is fast-paced, like a startup. The most important thing you can do is just be mindful of yourself and others.

If you’re interested in reading more, check out this Forbes article and another from American Managers Association!

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