Direct and Indirect Communication Styles

A communication style is the way in which we use language to share information with others.

Direct communication happens when a speaker’s true intentions are communicated in his/her verbal message. It expresses the speaker’s/sender’s needs and desires explicitly. When a direct communicator wants or needs something, he/she will ‘come right out and say it’.

Direct communicators take the other speaker’s words at face value: they will not analyze the message for underlying meaning. They value the effectiveness of short, direct answers, and expect and respect honesty and frankness.

Indirect communication happens when a speaker’s true intentions are hidden.  Indirect speakers will not make a direct statement or directly answer a question that might cause tension or result in an uncomfortable situation. They are more likely to say “maybe” or “possibly’ when the true answer is “no”.

Indirect communicators believe that being polite is more important than giving a true response; this belief is related to the concept of ‘saving face’ – to avoid hurting another person’s self-esteem.

In the U.S. and most western cultures, direct communication is usually the preferred style. In other cultures, including African and some Asian countries, indirect communication is more prevalent.

To a direct speaker, indirect verbal communication is often considered evasive, even untrust- worthy, while to an indirect speaker, direct verbal communication is perceived as harsh, even rude.

It can be frustrating for speakers in cultures where direct communication is the norm to interact with speakers in or from cultures that use indirect communication.  For example:

A sales manager has just received a poorly-written report with a few unsupported statements. .

If the manager is a direct communicator, he/she might say to the employee, “You have made a number of errors and incorrect assumptions in this report. Go back, check your data and proofread your work.

If the manager is an indirect communicator, he/she might say, “It seems there are some mistakes in this report and readers may question some of your assumptions. Could you check it over another time before finalizing it?”

The goal is the same for the direct and indirect communicator: he/she wants the employee to turn in a better report.   However, the second request may require interpretation.

It can be difficult for someone unaccustomed to a particular style of communication to ‘guess at’ the underlying meaning of indirect communication, and this may create a block to meaningful communication.

With direct communication, there is less risk of misunderstanding, but more risk of surprising or offending the receiver.  With indirect communication, there is more risk of misunderstanding, but less risk of offending the receiver.

In the workplace, the potential for tension and stress increases when the two different styles converge

Handling differences requires understanding and flexibility.  Recognize how your style may affect others, and become more flexible in how you approach people with a different style. Try a slightly different approach – for example, use less “assertive” language with an indirect communicator.

Advancement in the professional world requires learning to ‘cross the bridge’ between both communication styles.