Saying what you mean: How being direct can impact your business Featured

3:40pm EDT November 2, 2012
Saying what you mean: How being direct can impact your business

Deborah, an executive in the consumer products industry, was asked by her boss to conduct an internal assessment of one of the company’s programs. She uncovered some potentially serious issues and was careful to address each one in the report she prepared. A few days after she submitted it, her boss called her into his office. He had red-lined page after page.

To Deborah’s surprise, he wasn’t interested in discussing her findings. “Look at the language you use,” he said. “You’re qualifying all of your observations. You don’t sound sure of yourself. You’re minimizing your entire assessment.”

As Deborah flipped through the report, she found instance after instance where she had diluted the impact of her observations. She realized that if she didn’t convey herself confidently, her message risked being lost. How could she present herself more confidently in the future?

There are plenty of ways we unintentionally undermine ourselves, whether it’s in our written words, our conversations, presentations or the way we carry ourselves.

Deborah’s problem — of softening her language to avoid ruffling feathers — is one way that a lack of confidence inhibits direct communication. Another way is when people intentionally distort, manipulate or hide the facts in order to present themselves in a more flattering light. People take credit for work they didn’t do, try to make others look bad or inflate their successes to get ahead. Lack of confidence is often at its root, as people aren’t comfortable or content to present themselves as they truly are.

If you struggle with one of these problems, either personally or with your staff, there is no quick fix. The good news is you don’t have to wait to feel fully confident. Start communicating directly and honestly and your confidence will improve.

Here are a few good strategies for communicating directly and honestly for maximum impact.

Delivery goes a long way. For one week, pay attention to how you convey your opinions and ideas to others. Does your language — written or verbal — command attention? Or do you instead soften your delivery so as not to seem too assertive? If you find yourself struggling with this, chances are you’re severely minimizing the impact of your message.

Create a safe climate. Leaders have a responsibility to create a climate where direct communication is valued and encouraged. Deborah’s boss did just that by speaking frankly with her. By doing so, he demonstrated his commitment to her and his belief that she can grow and become a stronger member of the team.

By helping her see how she was undermining her impact, he was telling her that her insights and opinions are valuable and encouraging her to be her own best advocate. If he had used a less direct approach, he likely would have found himself repeatedly frustrated with her work.

Stop qualifying. Next time you want to start a sentence with “I think that” or “I believe that …,” drop off the introductory phrase. Contrast the impact of “I think it would be beneficial to revise the marketing strategy” with “It would be beneficial to revise the marketing strategy,” or better yet, “I am confident that the marketing strategy must be revised.”

Don’t give in to fear. It’s a tough market out there, and there’s temptation in not rocking the boat. But in the long run, no one is well-served when you or your employees turn a blind eye to important but unpleasant information. Not only can this result in bad ethical decisions but in dangerous ones too.

One of our clients experienced this: Plant workers hid safety issues from management because they were afraid to tarnish the company’s strong safety record. It wasn’t until multiple workplace injuries occurred that the safety issues came to light.

Learn from others. Identify a colleague or two whom you perceive as being confident. How do they communicate? How do you know by their speech that they are confident? What additional small steps can you take to deliver your ideas with more assurance and conviction?

Ultimately, it’s important to remember this: If you don’t sound convinced about what you’re saying, it’s hard to convince others.

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She has forged a career, enterprise and an applied discipline on the practice of teaching leaders to be masters of change. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company with an emphasis on the behavior-side of change. For more information, visit or contact Donna Rae at