If we were always direct in all our communications, the world would be a boring place — when it wasn't busy being dangerous and explosive. Many cultures (including my own) value directness, but indirectness has its uses, and we'd all benefit if everyone understood better when to use it.
Uses of indirectness abound. For example, consider the question, "How do you like my new haircut?" Even if we customarily lie, we all recognize the evasive reply, "Interesting…"
Here are just some of the uses of indirectness at work.
- Deference to authority
- Sometimes deference to authority is essential to survival within the organization, especially when conveying criticism. Indirectness can provide a means to surface important information. Yet, in extreme situations, even indirectness can be risky.
- Mitigating the risk of offense
- Conveying information to someone directly can risk offense, especially in the absence of a request for it. We can mitigate this risk by asking permission to make the offer, as in, "I have something on that, would you like to hear it?" Even then, some risk does remain. An indirect approach can be a less risky way to offer it. For instance, "If you want some background on that, let me know."
- Deferring to those in pain
- We'd all benefit if
everyone understood better
when to use indirectness
- When emotions are raw, and people are hurting, direct approaches are often rejected — if they don't make things even worse. Sometimes it's best to wait for healing, but indirectness can provide a channel for urgent communications.
- Maintaining deniability
- Sometimes it's necessary to convey information covertly, especially when you work in a politically unsafe environment. Hinting, suggesting, and speaking to be overheard are sometimes used this way. Of course, the lack of safety is fundamental, and it must be addressed, but short-term needs sometimes intervene before you find the long-term solution. Using indirectness for this purpose can be a signal that it's time to either resolve the safety issue or move on.
- Preserving or transferring of ownership
- When the message recipient must take ownership of the information, delivering the message directly can be problematic. Directness can result in a loss of ownership, or it can interfere with transfer of ownership. Using an indirect approach, such as hinting or speaking to be overheard, leaves the way clear for the recipient to assume ownership.
- Leaving space for creativity
- Conveying a direct message to problem solvers can bias their process. It can limit their creativity and it can cause them not to examine possibilities that they otherwise would. Indirect suggestions can give them necessary guidance with significantly less risk of biasing or limiting their creative process.
To whatever degree your own culture values indirectness, be assured that in this age of global teams you'll someday encounter someone who considers you overly direct. Prepare for these situations, if you want to be considered polite. Top Next Issue
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- And on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
- In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.