Direct communication involves saying what a person thinks and feels, and it is marked by active listening and effective feedback. It is clear, straightforward, and involves the two-way, free-flowing sharing of thoughts, feelings, and ideas. There is no pretense or hidden messages in direct communication; its purpose is quite simply to get or give information from one person or group of people to another.
Susan Heitler, PhD and GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert, defines direct communication as “putting into words one’s feelings and explaining one’s concerns.” Common sayings like “Honesty is the best policy” and “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” are reflective of direct communicators, who are quite adept at getting what they want (Joyce 2012). This is largely because direct communicators know how to spell out their needs to those who are in a position of being able to provide.
Additionally, Heitler points out that direct communication “leads to solutions,” while communicating thoughts and feelings indirectly, via such behaviors as stewing, pouting, gesturing, or skirting around an issue with co-optive words and phrases, does little to resolve a problem.
Direct Communication in Action
As an example, let’s say Mary and Greg, a married couple with two young children, are experiencing a moment of tension due to a lack of communication. She is feeling burdened by tackling kitchen and bedtime duty, while he feels the need to nap after dinner. Mary could easily bottle her feelings and grow increasingly frustrated with Greg’s lack of help, indirectly expressing herself via grunts, glaring looks, and exasperated sighs. Or, as Heitler suggests, she could confront the issue head on using direct communication, which might play out as follows:
Mary: “I’m feeling overwhelmed by cleaning the kitchen and also putting the kids to bed each evening. How would you feel about taking on kitchen clean-up?”
Greg: “If it’s okay with you that I nap right after dinner, when I always feel so sleepy, I’d be glad to clean the kitchen after I wake up.”
Presto! Problem solved.
Cultural Cords of Communication
Often, the way we communicate stems from how we were raised or the culture in which we are immersed. Did our parents or guardians raise us to talk about what was going on inside of us, no matter whether we were feeling happy, sad, angry, afraid, or embarrassed? Or, did we grow up in a household where certain emotions were bottled up and unexpressed? The answers to these questions factor into how we communicate as adults. Our experiences in school settings and social circles also have a hand in shaping whether we communicate directly or indirectly with our peers and colleagues.
Scholars distinguish between high- and low-context cultures and how they impact our styles of communication. Direct communication is more common in areas that are considered low-context, which means they are more culturally diverse and emphasize such traits as individualism, independence, and self-reliance (Joyce 2012). People in such environments are accustomed to encountering a wide range of people with differing communication styles, so the directness helps in accomplishing interactive tasks and making social connections.
For example, Ginger has been traveling for her job as an investment consultant several times a year for 10 years. She has flown all over the world, and has had to interact with people from a variety of backgrounds. As such, she has learned that in order to get her messages across, she must be direct. When Juan, the disgruntled client she is meeting for a business dinner in Argentina, shows up with a sour face and tight lips, she immediately expresses her desire to make things right. Upon realizing that Ginger has no intention of beating around the bush, Juan immediately opens up to her about the reasons for his obvious displeasure. Thanks to Ginger’s directness and Juan’s honesty, the potential communication blocks to deepening their business relationship were dissolved.
Mixed Messages: Direct Versus Indirect Communication
In spite of the numerous perks of direct communication, those who communicate sans subtleties may find themselves frustrated, confused, or completely clueless in the midst of more indirect communicators. “[T]hey may know that something isn’t working, but they don’t know what they’re doing that might be wrong, and because they’re surrounded by indirect communicators, no one will tell them directly what they’re doing wrong” (Joyce 2012).
Say, for example, Mario comes from a background of loud verbal communication during meal times and is invited to share a meal with his girlfriend Chloe’s family, who follow the “speak only when spoken to” rule and are therefore used to being extremely quiet and reserved at the dinner table. When Mario shows up and boldly voices his greetings and opinions while gobbling everything in sight, he is met with wide eyes and awkward silences. He senses that he is somehow breaking code, but can’t quite figure out what he’s doing wrong. It isn’t until Chloe pulls him aside and tells him directly that her family is not used to someone saying and doing as he feels that Mario understands.
This is why learning the dos and don’ts of a new environment often includes familiarizing oneself with the acceptable modes of communication.
- Joyce, C. (2012, November). The impact of direct and indirect communication. Independent Voice. Retrieved from http://www.uiowa.edu/~confmgmt/documents/DIRECTANDINDIRECTCOMMUNICATION.pdf
- University of Washington (UW). Indirect and direct communication. Organizational Behavior Resources, Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology. Retrieved from http://csde.washington.edu/~mbw/direct-and-indirect-communication.pdf
Last Updated: 01-22-2018
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Janie S.December 18th, 2016 at 8:54 AM
My bf always asks me repeatedly what’s wrong, but no matter the situation hell tell me I’m imaging it. So I no longer share my problems or concerns.
JamieFebruary 7th, 2017 at 12:28 PM
With so little information, I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I would encourage you to google “gaslighting” and see if that fits with your experience. Maybe it’s something else or you two look at things very differently, but in general I would question a significant other who repeatedly tells me that the thing I’m concerned about doesn’t exist. I would wonder, if I am truly imagining it, then why is that- what is it about this relationship (deeper reasons) that leads me to think these things. My two cents, for whatever they’re worth.
HOÀNG ẤUFebruary 15th, 2017 at 6:08 AM
actually I am still vague about why being direct is a good thing. Can you help me understand clearly about it? thanks
JanApril 12th, 2017 at 11:04 AM
The issue with indirect communication is that there are many different forms of it and each form has its own societal rules about how things are expressed. A direct communicator, or even an indirect communicator with a different set of rules, usually is not familiar with those specific rules and therefore does not really understand how to interpret what is being said. That can lead to huge misunderstandings and bad feelings because without real understanding of what another person is feeling or saying there is no true communication. I sincerely hope that as the world gets smaller we leave behind all the different communication styles, and languages, and gravitate toward one universal but respectful set that insures real understanding by all.
DustinJune 2nd, 2019 at 2:32 AM
Inderectness is usually an antisocial behavior trate . It works against social progress. Should be addressed and taking care of.
KaoApril 11th, 2017 at 4:01 PM
The problem w directness though is that it assumes you have a self-contained thought/feeling that can be “directly” transmitted to a third party. But what if this is an incorrect assumption? What if everything we think we know is penetrated by gaps and slippage and silences? What if everything we say contains a shadow of untruth?
DustinJune 2nd, 2019 at 2:29 AM
Uh what? Yes means yes and no is no.. its simple.
TonyaJune 6th, 2019 at 7:09 AM
I prefer direct communication in my marriage. Sometimes my husband uses indirect communication, which I look at as hinting, instead of being direct and asking for something (a choice of a particular restaurant, for example). He is trying to “lead” me to choose what he wants rather than come out and put his request in. He has told me that he feels bad requesting something that I might not want. However, it isn’t a non-strings attached attempt. If I fail to pick up on these non direct communications, he equates it to a lack of caring. What is this called?
LucyApril 17th, 2020 at 1:20 AM
BS is the term I’d used. For me indirect communication at the bottom of it is about control.
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