Imagine we are working on improving your communication skills. Which of these scenarios would you prefer?

The first time we meet, I give you an article and say: “Sit down and read this article. Think about it carefully. Then I want to talk to you about when and how to use direct and indirect communication at work.” Or, I say: “I understand that you want to find ways to improve your communication skills. I’ve brought an article that may be helpful and I’d like to invite you to read it. If you want, we can talk afterwards about its content.”

The first scenario is an example of direct communication and the second of indirect. Knowing when and where to use these two styles can make all the difference to your interactions.

Direct communication is speech that specifically states and directs an action. Those who prefer to use this style appear to be straightforward and frank. They like to debate, tell rather than ask and come over as confident.

When someone hears direct speech, they know immediately what needs to be done. There is no question about who is in charge, and usually no need for discussion. Direct communication is often necessary in the workplace and there are times when it is the only appropriate option, eg, when:

  • you are the expert and can be clear about your knowledge of the subject matter
  • there is only one right way to do something and/or the outcomes are regulated by law, policy or procedure
  • you are short on time and something needs to be done immediately
  • the listener is unaware of the need to do something or wants to be told what to do.

An indirect style is not typically authoritative. It invites contribution and makes the listener feel that their ideas are important. Indirect communicators are diplomatic, tactful, approachable, unassuming, prefer to negotiate and ask rather than tell. Indirect communication is very useful. It helps teams to work more smoothly and creates an environment of friendly respect, eg, when:

  • your listener is the expert and you want to learn from them
  • commitment to the solution is critical or you want to create collaboration, synergy and ownership
  • you want someone to learn through involvement.

Neither style is right or wrong when used appropriately, but the potential for conflict arises when the two different styles collide. It is important to remember that both these communication styles are found in every culture although every culture has tendencies towards one more than the other.

Indirect communicators may be perceived as vague, beating around the bush expecting listeners to read between the lines. It may give the impression of being untrustworthy.

The direct communicator can be seen as authoritarian, argumentative or rude and this can damage engagement, collaboration and empowerment.

So take a moment or two - how is your communication style being interpreted?

Sheila Williams is a coach and HR consultant at Bluestone Organisation Development.