The Case for Being Direct // the How

This is part two of a two part series on direct communication.

During my last year of teaching, I had the privilege to teach a few upperclassmen a Communications class. Among other things, I took the opportunity to teach them from the book Crucial Conversations (which I beyond-highly recommend to every single human). Essentially, it walks the reader through practical ways to handle high-stakes and high-emotion conversations. I sure wish I learned those points when I was 16! Many of these practical points are adapted from these fantastic book. 

I had one student that admittedly struggled with these conversations, but intensely dedicated herself to getting better. Instead of blaming others or just giving into high emotions (which are easy alternatives!), she would come to me, spread out the situation, and ask me to help her practice approaching the conversation with kind and fair direct communication. I am still immensely proud of her, because she demonstrated the absolute hardest step in being a direct communicator: solution-focused humility. That is, she entered these conversations not to one-up the other person (or humiliate them, or beat them, or tell them off), but to salvage and grow the relationship. 

We’ll talk more about that in a moment, but before we proceed, I want to harp on this point: we must approach others with humility even when we’re certain that we’re right. Jesus was always right! Yet, He never lorded His Messiah-ship or omniscience over anyone or anything. Instead, He used it as a way to bless and help others. Direct communication without humility can easily become unrestrained arrogant blasting. That’s not what we’re after. Keep the mindset of humility as we talk about implementation. 

As a reminder, when we’re talking about healthy direct communication, we’re talking about: 

  • Saying what you mean and meaning what you say
  • Sharing the truth in a caring and fair way
  • Dealing with issues before your anger gives you the courage to do so
  • Broaching difficult topics with vulnerability, honesty, and love
  • Thinking about the other person when you approach them — both their short-term and their long-term well-being
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

What do you really want?

When you need to tell a loved one something uncomfortable, what is your goal? Do you want them to say sorry for what they did? Do you want to get them back in some way, possibly make them feel badly also? Do you want them to feel like you’re smarter or better than them? I doubt any of us actually say these are the things that we want, but we often approach people with these mindsets. Again, we often wait until our anger or resentment have reached their boiling point, so we are no longer thinking clearly. We see red, and we want the other person to feel the intensity of that heat. 

What if, instead, we approached the conversation with intentionality? We set a goal: my loved one is doing X and it really upsets me. I want them to understand why I don’t like it, for them to stop, and for us to have as good of or even a better relationship than before the conversation. Pretty clear cut, right? Might sound impossible, though. How in the world can we do all that? I’m about to criticize them, for goodness’ sake!

Talk about facts, not assumptions

I’ll use my marriage as an example. Let’s say that I hate when the day ends with dishes left in the sink, and my husband keeps telling me that he’s going to clean the kitchen before bed, but he forgets. Not every day, but 3-4 days a week. Enough to get on my nerves and upset me. 

What if I approached him like this?

“Babe, you keep saying you’re going to do the dishes, but you never do! Why would you say you will when you’re not going to? I don’t get it. I do so much around the house, and I ask you to do this ONE thing, and you can’t even do that. You don’t even care about what’s important to me.”

Is this in line with the goal I mentioned earlier?

Mmm not so much. There are a lot superlatives, assumptions, sounds like some raised voice in there, too. This is not helpful. What about this:

“Babe, I really appreciate you saying that you’ll take care of the dishes for me, because you know how much I hate doing them [which is SO true]. I’ve noticed lately that there are a few nights where you don’t get to the dishes before we go to bed. Would it help if I reminded you? Or would it be helpful if I did them certain nights?”

Zero anger. Gratitude. Solution-based. No assumptions on his motives or character. Questions. Do you see how the second one will get me what I actually want? Namely, dishes being done (even if I have to help out sometimes!) and a still-good relationship with my husband. 

When you approach someone, stay away from superlatives (always, never, etc.) and assumptions of motives or character (you hate me, you don’t care, etc.). Speak to facts. Things you can see. Things that cannot be disputed. And don’t wield them as weapons; use them as talking points to explain the problem and then lead to the solution. 

Share your feelings

When we’re asking someone to stop doing something or to begin doing something else, we can often hide behind accusatory statements or turn our feelings into facts.

“You don’t care about me!”

It’s better to share your feelings as they actually are: your feelings. Going back to the dishes example, I could add my feelings by saying:

“Babe, I really appreciate you saying that you’ll take care of the dishes for me, because you know how much I hate doing them. I’ve noticed lately that there are a few nights where you don’t get to the dishes before we go to bed. This makes me feel frustrated and stressed, because I like to wake up to a clean kitchen. It also makes me feel like this isn’t as important to you as it is to me. Would it help if I reminded you? Or would it be helpful if I did them certain nights?”

I give the heart of the issue: I just have a thing for a clean kitchen. Also, I feel like this is important to me but not to him. Is that true? I dunno, I’m not him. I’ll just tell him how I feel and leave it up to him to tell me the truth. My feelings are only that: my feelings. 

When you’re sharing with a loved one, share the facts and your feelings, but make sure not to confuse the two. There’s a strong chance that your loved one had no idea how something was affecting you. You sharing your feelings can give them insight and even motivation to find a solution with you. 

Bring it up when you’re calm and they’re calm

Even if you don’t wait too long to talk about something, sometimes there’s a topic that just really gets under your skin. Someone said something really unkind. Dirty socks being left on the bed. Whatever it is for you, we all have something!

Know yourself and be self aware enough to know if this is a good time to bring it up. If you feel your heartbeat in your ears, now’s probably not the best time. Take an hour or three to cool off. Maybe wait until tomorrow. Wait until you can speak calmly, kindly, and in a solution-based way. 

Also be aware of your loved one. Just because it’s a good time for you, doesn’t mean it’s a good time for them. Me interrupting my husband when he’s working to get something off my chest is probably not the best move. Thankfully, my husband is remarkably chill and generous with his time towards me, but it’s still inconsiderate. It’d be better if I wait until lunch time, the evening, or possibly the next morning.

Don’t use this as an excuse to wait too long, but now now now is not necessarily the best time either. 

Remember your goal in the face of bad communication

Your loved one may have the same struggles as you — they might even be worse! They probably haven’t read this article (or the fantastic book), so this conversation might catch them by surprise. They feel like maybe you’re not saying all that you want to, or that you’re silently judging them. It’s crazy how much we suspect people when we are the ones who are not clearly communicating. 

If this happens, your loved one might not respond to you the way you want. My husband could respond and say,

“Well, what do you expect? I’m busy, and work has been crazy lately. No, it’s NOT important to me, and I don’t get what the big deal is. Stop nagging me, geez.”

I’m getting heated even writing out that hypothetical response. So rude! I can return in kind now, right?

Well sure. You can. But then your goal goes out the window. What do you really want? To show your husband his place with some unkind words of your own? I don’t think that’s a good option. Remember your goal.

Resist the urge to be defensive. It is an innate and very strong urge, but you can stop it. If you can’t say anything nice — you already know — don’t say anything at all. You could respond to this outburst with, “It seems like you feel like I was attacking you. I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant. But we can talk about this later.” That’ll probably confuse them, hah. But that’s okay. Go and cool off and try again later. They’ll probably be more receptive when they noticed you didn’t enter into a fight when they clearly tried to start one. 

You’re not responsible for the other person. But you are completely responsible for your own communication. Don’t let them take that power from you. 

At the risk of this article becoming a book on the topic, I’ll close there. One final item is that this takes practice. It takes practice to broach difficult subjects as soon as they come up and not once you’re sick of the person. It takes practice to formulate solution-based sentences that communicate your love as well as the issue. But don’t give up. I promise you it’s worth it. 

If you have a thinly-disguised conversation you want some help with, I’m no expert, but I’d still be willing to help. Always feel free to reach out. And I’m praying for you, reader. In a world that only shows scrubbed images and hides from everything painful or uncomfortable, let’s be the people that face difficulties head on and retain vibrant, affirming, and loving relationships. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a glorious reward.