How to be Direct AND Improve Relationships

Just as oxygen is vital to life on earth, communication is equally essential to developing new business, retaining existing clients, and managing staff and partner relationships.  One of the keys to effective communication is being direct, and yet most people find this excruciatingly difficult.  The Harvard Business Review published an article last week that exemplified the dilemma most people face in this area.  The article summarized advice from five great sports coaches, one of which advocated being direct with the players while another cautioned against it.  Bill Parcells, a football coach famous for turning around underperforming teams, said that, “in the end, I’ve found, people like the direct approach.”  While Bill Walsh, who coached the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl wins, said, “It sounds just great to say that you are going to be honest and direct. But insensitive, hammer-like shots that are delivered in the name of honesty and openness usually do the greatest damage to people.” The apparent contradiction comes, I believe, from a lack of clarity about the word direct. People have drastically different understandings of its meaning.  One person might mean an unfiltered, off-the-cuff assessment that someone is a useless piece of garbage. While his colleague may mean clearly articulating what actions a staff member needs to take in order to improve.  It doesn’t take a psychologist or deep analytic inquiry to realize that one would be more constructive than the other.  Below, I offer you my “cheat sheet” for effective direct communication. Note: Although the examples I'm using today pertain to communications within a firm, the same basic principles apply when setting boundaries with clients or developing business.

If you are upset, wait until you calm down.  Speaking when angry is almost always destructive. Thus, the first step is to take a walk, wait a day, talk to a friend, or do whatever you need to do to get some space and put aside the negative emotion.  As human beings, when our emotions are highly charged, their expression almost invariably backfires and gets released in inappropriate or unhelpful ways. Once those emotions subside, it can be valuable to tell people that you are upset.  Putting staff on notice that the boss is genuinely angry may be useful to make a point or emphasize the seriousness of a situation.  Nevertheless, simply speaking the words, “I am angry,” is usually most effective as it doesn’t run the risk of creating the fear, indignation, and other reactions that can harm relationships and decrease productivity.

Assume positive intent.  People very rarely are deliberately being jerks.Assume that they want to do a good job and be contributing members of the team.  I know this sometimes feels difficult, but if you can do it, the conversations will go much more smoothly and yield greater results. Everyone is just doing the best they how with whatever limited skills they have been taught or developed along the way.

Identify exactly what you want from the person.  I often hear clients make statements like, “I want my associates to be more active in business development,” or “I want my practice group to work together as a team.” Such ideas seem crystal clear to us, but we fail to realize how vague they are to others. That associate might assume that he is meeting your expectations by attending networking events; whereas you meant that you want him to be more involved in preparing pitches to prospective clients.  Similarly, your practice group members might think that by attending monthly meetings to discuss their business development activities they are discharging their duty to “work together as a team,” whereas you envision team members speaking jointly at conferences, sharing contacts, and cooperating outside of the meetings.  Everyone is busy and it takes attention and focus to get really clear on what we want from people.  However, taking ten minutes to write out exactly what you want will often save hours of aggravation later on.

Include a time frame, and plan for follow-up.  Work is busy, and deadlines generate action.  Yet, the majority of conversations about change fail to include a time frame or plans for follow-up; and then we are surprised and disappointed when change doesn’t occur.  In the following examples, consider what results are predictable.

  • I’d like you to talk to the marketing director and come up with a plan for your business development. Let’s schedule a quick meeting at the end of this month, when you can report on progress.
  • For the next monthly meeting, please come ready to discuss one potential client who you would like to target.  Each person will be asked (1) what you have done so far, (2) one idea for collaborating with another lawyer in this firm on developing the relationship or offering services to that potential client, and (3) the actions you will take the following month.

Baring unforeseen circumstances, or severely broken relationships among those involved, it seems likely that these requests would be honored.  Once the expectations are clear and a deadline is set, taking the actions seems both essential and manageable.

People generally avoid direct communication because they fear it will damage the relationship, when actually the opposite is true.  Failure to set clear expectations leads to frustration, confusion, and wasted energy on both sides.  On the other hand, once expectations are clearly articulated, it dramatically increases the likelihood that the person will do what was asked.  The other person successfully accomplishes the task, you see forward progress, and everyone wins.