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ATD Blog

Why Should I Cater to People Who Are Afraid to Speak Their Mind?

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

I once had someone write me the following:

I am a very direct individual. I struggle to work with anyone who is not direct, who is conflict-avoidant, and who does not speak up to ensure we work together effectively. Trying to make it safe for people like this feels like coddling and a waste of time. I think it’s good to learn skills to speak up, but I don’t see the benefit in placating to people who are insecure or introverted or both. Am I missing something?

Do you often feel the same way?

While it may be true that it’s more efficient in the moment to be “very direct” and not try to make it safe for everyone to share their perspective, virtually all the research in interpersonal communication suggests that kind of approach can be inefficient in the long run.

If you’re not communicating in a way that invites others into the conversation, the result may be tacit agreement in the moment, then later gossip, complaining, distrust, lack of engagement, and a host of other organizational illnesses that kill your culture.

Here are some tweaks you may consider when trying to communicate with quieter colleagues:


Examine Your View of Honesty

I realize it can be easier to say exactly what you’re thinking and feeling instead of filtering your thoughts and comments, but reflecting on the impact of your directness may make you that much more effective. The good news is you don’t have to sacrifice honesty for another person’s feelings. You can keep both in view.

People often think honesty and respect are on a continuum—with respect on one end and honesty on the other. We assume we need to choose one or the other in our crucial interactions.

Here is what we at Crucial Learning know from studying such interactions for the last 30 years: the best don’t view honesty and respect as opposites. The best focus on communicating with 100 percent honesty and 100 percent respect.

So, the question I invite you to reflect on is this: Is your directness also respectful? Or is there the chance you sometimes sacrifice respect in your effort to be direct?


The Myth of “Brutal Honesty”

I’ve worked with dozens of people who say, “Justin, I’m just brutally honest—it’s just my personality.” I worry that these people care more about being brutal than about being honest. Being honest and direct is about being clear, specific, sincere, and authentic. So, you don’t have to be rude or short to be direct. You do need to state the observable facts of the situation and your perspective about those facts.

It’s dishonest to express our opinions as facts, which is what we often do in crucial moments. Conversely, it’s honest to recognize and make it clear that our opinions are just that—opinions. It’s also honest to recognize that more than one opinion exists and that other perspectives may be more accurate than ours. And those are facts. The model I use for starting even the toughest conversations is this:

  • Share your facts.
  • Tell your story (opinion).
  • Ask for others’ perspectives.

Being “direct” is fine so long as it’s not filled with a raised voice, labels, or overstated opinions. Directness contributes to the discussion when it’s filled with facts, observations, and opinions shared as opinions.

You can make it easier for people to speak up by asking for their opinions before expressing yours. And then when it’s time to talk, don’t overstate your opinions. Start with observable facts, then share your interpretation of the facts, then invite others to respond.

About the Author

Justin is a speaker and training designer for Crucial Learning with expertise in organizational communication, conflict management, and personal effectiveness.

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