Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to tell it like it is, but fragile egos and fear of litigation make engaging in “straight talk” a challenge. Managers often find it difficult to be candid without crossing the line, and words, phrases, and attitudes that might have been fine yesterday can become taboo overnight. Learning to speak in a respectfully straightforward manner is a key management skill that will serve you throughout your entire career.
It takes skill to hit right between the eyes without leaving your target feeling as though you’ve invaded their space or overstepped your boundaries. By implementing these four key principles, you can ensure that your words come off as crisp and expedient, not insensitive or rude.
Keep it neutral. Aim for clarity, but position your message in a way that won’t evoke a defensive response. Sarcasm and unmitigated criticism lead others to put up walls rather than encouraging positive, productive conversation.
Make empathy your strategy. Put yourself on the other side. What does this person stand to gain from fixing the issue at hand? Approach it as though you’re a team with a common goal, and focus on the big picture rather than the things that bug you.
Have a helpful intention. Don’t assume the person is aware of how their behavior appears or affects other people. In opening up a dialogue, you may even learn that your own behavior plays a role of which you were previously unaware.
Stay professional. Just because your situation is contentious or makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean you should dance around it. You’ll get better results being considerate and direct.
Sound doable? Let’s put these strategies to work in a few common office scenarios.
Your boss is a control freak. Don’t: “All my other managers have always been happy with my performance. I don’t get why you’re all over my every move. What’s it going to take to satisfy you?” Do: “I’ve noticed that you’ve been watching me closely as of late. I want to know how I can better give you what you need and instill confidence in my ability.”
A gossipy coworker is driving you nuts. Don’t: “Barb, why must you be so overly concerned with everyone else’s business?” Do: “Hey Barb, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but people are starting to express discomfort about the way you’re constantly discussing others. I just wanted to give you a heads-up that you might want to tone it down a bit.”
An employee’s work is consistently subpar. Don’t: “Gee, Charlie, you make more mistakes than everyone else combined. Do you know what you’re doing?” Do: “Charlie, I know you’re trying hard, and I appreciate that. I’d like to help you improve the quality of your work so it’s level with the rest of the team.”
A peer is stepping on your toes. Don’t: “Look, Jennifer, I’m in charge of product PR. Not you. I think we’ll get along much better if you let me run things my way.” Do: “Jennifer, you seem to be very interested in how product PR goes down. I’d like to know how you think my team can work together more effectively.”
You may think that your solutions are more subtle than the “don’t”s listed above, but even if that’s true, you’re only being more subtle about the way you insult, degrade, and de-motivate. Don’t be subtle—be direct, but with finesse. Only then will your efforts be met with the positive results you desire.