Too Direct? Five Ways to Dial it Back


We all appreciate a leader who is honest and direct in the way they speak. Good leaders strive for clarity and truthfulness. However, do you know that you can cross the line into what I call being “overly direct”?

An overly direct leader can be abrupt. They may not recognize when they have not provided the care and time needed to speak to others in such a way that there is a give and take in the conversation. They may appear to have an attitude of “its my way or the high-way”. They may be rushed, and may not be fully present in the conversation. An emotional hot button in the leader may be hit, and their tone of voice may escalate and become more insistent.

The line is thin between being direct and crossing into being overly direct. When the line is crossed it can shut people down, stop creative thinking, and make more work for you as others either avoid you or ask you for direction at every turn because they don’t want to deal with your negative reactions. If you want to be inclusive, to foster innovation, and to have staff that are fully functional and independent, you may need to find a way to dial back on your bluntness while still being clear and honest in your communication.

If you’ve had feedback that indicates that others perceive your communication style as too direct, brusque, abrupt, rigid, or blunt, here are some ways to pause and reconsider your reactions when you are communicating with others:

Slow down: Take some deep breaths, all the way down into your belly. This will oxygenate your brain, giving you a fighting chance at thinking rationally. Ground yourself in the present moment. Sure, you have lots to do and think about, but this moment is all you have. Make it count by paying attention to it.

Stop and listen: Stop talking and listen to the individual you are speaking to. Face them, look them in the eye and tune in to what they are saying. Honestly – this is the most important thing you can learn to do. I have seen better listening take care of the overly direct style almost single handedly.

Observe yourself: With practice, you can learn to pay attention to your reactions in the moment and still be present with the person you are speaking to. Learn to recognize the emotional triggers that may make your tone too insistent, harsh, rushed or abrupt. When you feel those triggers coming on, you know its time to slow down and breathe.

Observe them: Pay attention to the reactions others have when you are communicating with them. Do you observe fear or engagement? Have you shut them down or are they conversing with you? Put some warmth in your tone and slow your pace so that they will speak up.

Put yourself in their shoes: A little bit of empathy can go a long way in avoiding being too blunt. Think about how you might feel if someone were being too blunt in their conversation with you. Dial it back by asking them a question to invite them back into the conversation.

You can still be honest and direct without crossing the line into bluntness and shutting others down. Your effectiveness as a leader may depend on dialing back your overly direct style.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

17 comments on “Too Direct? Five Ways to Dial it Back

  1. Thank you, this advice was helpful.

    As a former New Yorker, now living in Sacramento, CA, it has become apparent that sometimes I don’t “dance” enough and am not “demure” enough for some local individuals. Style is sometimes geographicallyand/or culturally influenced. We can choose to “curb” it at times, as appropriate.

    This article gave me insight into the cultural gap and my part in some of these communication situations.

    Grazie for your wisdom,

  2. Margie, you’ve definitely provided a great reminder of how different geographic areas accept or reject certain styles. I’ve coached a fair number of people who’ve moved across country or across the globe who’ve discovered this. Since I am from an area where “Midwest Nice” is prevalent (this is a very indirect style, sometimes deceptively so), I know this to be true from executives I’ve worked with who ran into trouble with their overly-direct communication style that was acceptable in another part of the world. Thanks!

  3. Great post Mary Jo! One thing I have found to help improve the relationship between an overly direct manager and his or her employees is behavioral communication training. When a team understands each member’s inherent communication style and is able to adapt their own approach to fit others’ style amazing things can happen. For managers with a tendency to be very blunt, your tips are dead-on!

    I have included your post in my Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ blog picks of the week (found here: to share your suggestions for “dialing it back” with my readers.

    Be well!

  4. What a great bit of advice. I tend to be one of those who talks fast and I focus on fact over form pretty much all of the time. I’ve learned that there’s a look people get when they feel you’re running over them, and I’ve tried to keep my eyes open more for that. But your advice about slowing down and listening is excellent. My grandfather used to say that God gave you two ears and one mouth so that you would listen twice as much as you talk. Advice I still don’t follow as much as I would like.

    I think another thing we do that is detrimental is interpret what we “think” people are saying to us. It goes with your point on listening. I think one of the worst mistakes we make is responding to what we think people are saying (or are going to say) instead of really actively listening, so that our responses are timely and relevant. I’m not sure where we get the tendency to answer the question before it’s asked (maybe from watching jeopardy) but it’s got to be one of the more frustrating things we do to people. It tells people that you’re in too big a hurry to really listen to their concern, understand it, and then respond.

  5. Mary Jo,

    Thanks for the great post! This is very good advise that is to often overlooked or not considered. My manager is one who generally is good at what he does, but listening and over directing are his two weakest points. It helps me learn from what he does to know what not to do, because I know being in my shoes that I do shut down when he doesn’t want to listen and tells me to do it his way or the highway.

    With that, I’m no perfect person either, although I feel more aware of how I talk to others. I think the best pieces of this article to take away from are listening and observing yourself. I have noticed changes in my own workplace with my employees from exercising those two over the past couple years. It does nobody any good when you have employees shut down or not expresses their ideas because they feel like you don’t listen to them. And as Ray pointed out, make sure you are actively listening to our employees, not just giving them 50% of our attention and going on with assuming we know what they are thinking.

    Love your material, thanks for continuing to invest into our knowledge and skills!

  6. Mary Jo-

    This is some great advice for dealing with people in general. Taking the time to stop and comprehend something before you respond is a smart thing to do in any situation. In my experience I think many people have put too little emphasis in putting themselves into other peoples shoes at the moment, only to look back on what had been said to wish they had said things differently. Taking those extra few seconds could save large amounts of time in the future repairing relationships and trust.

  7. I really enjoyed this post because I know I can be overly direct; which I contribute to being the oldest of 5 children, because I always felt the need to be efficient in my communication to be organized and get everything done. However, as I develop myself I have been told by others that the way I communicate via e-mail or even in person sometimes is “cold” or impersonal and I feel this has a lot to do with me just trying to get a job done rather than fully appreciating what the interaction may look like from the other person’s perspective. The 5 recommendations you have above I will definitely try to keep in my mind when communicating with others and I thank you for them, although I have heard variations of them it is important to keep reminding myself of how to improve the interactions I have all the time with so many different people.

  8. In the last couple of reviews that I have had, my managers have told me that I ask questions of people in an “aggressive” manner. Many times, I find myself wondering to who’s perception is this “agressiveness” is coming out of, as I don’t personally think that I ask questions bluntly. In many cases, people want more information than they’re asking for, because they want a better idea of “the big picture”. I ask things like “Why do we do it this way? Why are things set up in that fashion?” It seems that some people on the receiving end of those questions might get a little offended because of their comfortability with the system. They may not be accustomed to having these questions posed. Is there anything that I can do to lighten the impact of these questions, and still get the answers I seek?

  9. Chris, thanks for your comments and the recognition! Yes, I agree. A lot of understanding and flexibility can come out of the kind of training you suggest.

    Ray, I’m glad that you’re taking notice of people’s reactions! Your second point, at least partially, is about the assumptions we make. If we’re truly listening, we aren’t doing that. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Brett, thanks for underscoring the importance of good listening. I did a series on listening awhile back (you might find it if you use the search tool in the left column)because I find it supremely important to good relationships and good leadership.

    Bryce, you caught me! Yes, the advice I gave is good for a lot of communication situations. Thanks!

    Megan, best wishes and great courage to you on working on your self improvement efforts. They will pay off!

  10. Mary Jo

    I enjoyed your article on how to not come off as being overly blunt. I find that i often have conversations where I get caught up in the moment and can have reactions that turn people off. I understand that people have different expectations based on their different social experiences.

    Thank you for your help.

  11. Great piece of advice Mary. We see overly direct talks every day in our life. I, always, get irritated in a one to one conversation when I end up listening all the time without a chance to respond my point. I think some people don’t aware that they are overly direct in conversations. They don’t talk rudely; They don’t raise their voice. In general, they are nice.

  12. Your post is really helpful and forces me to think a lot. Actually I always have difficulties in the communication with my boss and I am always struggling about how to communicate with him. I am pretty aware that communication depends on both of the two sides, so I am thinking how can I do since it is impossible for him to change his way of talking. He is direct in talking, without knowing sometimes he has already hurt my feelings; Also, he insists that I should say something even when I don’t know what to say. In that case, he will stare at me for a long time in silence until I open my mouth. Sometimes I really feel frustrated and avoid talking to him. So probably I should talk to him about this issue, right?

  13. I come from a place where asking a question has been shortened to a statement and the inflection dropped. So, for example, I might want to ascertain that the person I am talking to likes jazz and would say “you like jazz” with an almost completely flat tone. Where I grew up, it would be understood as a question and treated accordingly, but where I live now, it is interpreted as an instruction or, worse, as a statement of inflexible belief on my part that cannot be challenged. It led to a lot of the sorts of accusations listed above and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why as I was diligently practicing all of the advice listed in this post. Now I have figured it out I take special care to ensure I phrase my questions explicitly as such, but it’s a difficult habit to break!

    That’s just a dull anecdote that most people are probably not very interested in, but I guess my point is that cultural differences can extend beyond what is considered “direct” or “abrupt” and can go all the way to grammer and inflection, even with native speakers of the same language.

  14. Ellie, great example of how cultural differences shape our tone, and the kind of problems they can cause when a leader is heading up a different culture. Thanks for that!

  15. William, soften your tone and change those questions from starting with “why” (which can seem accusatory) to starting with “what”: “What is working well about what we’re doing?” or “What could we do differently”?. Watch the tone.

    Chris, this tactics might help! Thanks for your comments.

    Meng, yes, it would be a good (but difficult) conversation to have with your boss. Use “I” statements and explain to him/her what the effect of their insistence is on you. Don’t accuse. Good luck.

    Yathi, thanks.

  16. Very early in my career I got the feedback that I was overly direct. I was just out of college so I was low on the totem pole. Fortunately I was also highly regarded so it was a learning opportunity rather than a career limiting move.

    Looking back I can see that I what I had to learn was as much about how to adapt to the cultural norm as it was how to communicate more effectively. Wish I would have had this post back then!

    Years later one of the things I am most valued for is my ability to be direct. The biggest difference I can see in my approach between now and then comes down to this – compassion and caring. When people know you truly care about them, that they are safe with you, and believe you are committed to serving their best interests it is amazing how direct/straight you can be.

  17. Mary Jo, I read this and thought, well this doesn’t apply to me but I think that is the point. I am kind of the opposite of this type of leader. That’s probably where I struggle. I am sometimes not direct enough. Perhaps even soft spoken. So I think there is something for me to learn as well. Maybe I should take a note from some of the more head strong employers and learn that at times it’s ok to be a little more direct. I think it’s all about a balance. So lesson learned, I think you got to find a balance, can’t be too direct and can’t be too timid. Thanks for the post!

Comments are closed.