Blunt/Direct communicators

A lot of engineers (especially individual contributors) get characterized as blunt or direct or assertive communicators. These individuals generally communicate their thoughts and opinions in an unfiltered and straightforward manner. The desired outcome from a conversation these folks expect is clarity. Sugar-coating, diplomatic phrasings, adding vagueness, etc. are generally seen as detrimental to the conversation. Getting straight to the point generally seems important to them, rather than dance around a topic.

A lot of people on the receiving end of these communications start perceiving this as rudeness. Even though the intention to hurt or belittle others may not be present, a perception of sabotage or hurt ego is very common. The necessary directness added to the conversation generally also is looked up as a superiority complex or ego centric-ness.

Online communication and its challenges

In the increasingly remote work environment world, video calls (zoom, teams or otherwise), instant messaging (slack, etc.) and emails e omnipresent and their adoption is increasing. Even though these modes of communication facilitate a lot of necessary buffers between individuals (very necessary for introverts, another quality that is very much present in the same sample space of individuals), it presents some unique challenges like:

  • Tone Misinterpretation: Emails and text-based communication platforms lack the intonation, pauses, and emphasis that vocal speech allows. This absence leads to misinterpretations, with straightforward comments often perceived as harsh or impolite. In my personal experience, this is the largest source of “escalations”.
  • Perceived Lack of Empathy: Direct communication can be efficient, but it might also be viewed as lacking empathy or consideration for others feelings.
  • Loss of Non-Verbal Cues: In face-to-face communication, a direct individual often relies on physical cues like body language or tone, to soften the impact of their words or gauge the listener’s reaction. These cues are generally absent in online communication. These leads to, often missing or misunderstood interpretation by the receiver about the intention behind the message.
  • Delayed Feedback: The delayed responses in a lot of these communication modes, leads to misunderstandings or create uncertainty about how a message has been received.
  • Overemphasis on Content Over Relationship: Blunt speakers often prioritize the message’s content over the relationship with the receiver. This can further aggravate feelings of disconnect or misalignment.
  • Formality and Expectations: A blunt person’s tendency to be concise and to-the-point comes off as rudeness in an environment where a certain level of formality or ‘small talk’ or ‘diplomacy’ is expected.

Suggested solutions

The below solutions/strategies have been suggested to me multiple times and through multiple forums (performance reviews, 1:1 feedbacks, escalation RCAs, leadership trainings, GPT, etc)

  • Embrace Emotional Intelligence: Be aware of the emotional impact of one’s words and use this understanding to frame the communication in a more palatable way.
    • My experience: This is hard, like really hard. It definitely works, but doing it itself is a large challenge.
  • Leverage Emojis/GIFs: Emojis/GIFs can be used to inject humor, soften a statement, or show empathy, which can prevent misinterpretations.
    • My experience: This helps a bit in instant messaging. It is detrimental in almost all other settings.
  • Seek Feedback and Clarify: Checking in or seeking feedback with the receiver can clear up potential misunderstandings and help demonstrate the intention to communicate respectfully.
    • My experience: Feasibility to do this itself is often very less. It mostly works with someone you have an already established rapport with.
  • Utilize Video Calls: Video calls can be a substitute for fave-to-face communication.
    • My experience: Not useful other than 1:1 conversations.
  • Develop Your Written Communication Skills: The written word lacks the subtlety of spoken language. Thus, learning to use phrases that convey respect, empathy, and openness can help to soften the impact of a direct communication style.
    • My experience: Definitely necessary to know how to communicate your point “clearly”. But asking to stop being direct in written communication is a circular solution i.e stop being direct.

Things that worked

Apart from the above experiences, the below things have worked for me in varied settings. (Still a long way to go…):

  • Detailed write-ups
    • Writing down proposals/discussion points in detail with proper context setting, options considered, conclusions, sending these docs in advance and then discussing these as needed helps a lot.
    • However, the challenge is that few people want to read lengthy write-ups.
    • Of course this is not applicable to all scenarios, but if done a bit tactically, gives great results.
  • Audio calls with discussion being done on a written medium
    • While discussing a topic, if there are written points, which are projected on the screen, it helps a lot in streamlining the discussion and getting the point across in a much more palatable way.
    • If it is an open discussion, just projecting a blank doc/editor and a facilitator writing down points, actions, pros/cons etc. helps a lot in everyone staying on track and getting to a conclusion. Digital whiteboards/drawing tools have always given worse results with lots of frustrations for me.
  • Avoid any direct personal remarks
    • While not everyone who is direct does it, but it is very easy to call out a person for a mistake or lack of knowledge. This is never ever a good idea. Maybe some 1:1 setting, but mostly should be avoided.
  • Avoid satire
    • Again, may not be a general thing, but never works in an online communication setting.

Parting thoughts

Seeking efficiency, transparency and honesty can be valuable in many contexts, especially in situations that require decisiveness, clarity, and swift action. Though it has its own challenges, just remembering that there is a human on other end of it can help a long way. More often than not, both the parties want to achieve the same goal.