People say they prefer when people are direct. But do they really?
When I meet someone for the first time, I sometimes find myself saying something that sounded a bit more blunt than intended. It is at that point I usually laugh jokingly and tell them that I can be pretty direct. The response is usually how they prefer that, and that they prefer to be direct as well. But most of the time they aren’t. Only most of the time I still am.
Based on people’s actions (not words), I’ve concluded that being direct isn’t appreciated as much as everyone says it is. Regardless of my intention or the context of the conversation, I am often perceived as being blunt, not direct. And there is a big difference between the two. According to Merriam-Webster:
While they seem similar, I figured out that the difference is the impact. If I upset them, I am being blunt. If not, I am being direct.
That is an important distinction, and one that took me a long time to figure out.
Over the years, people have described my directness as great, even refreshing. I’ve even been encouraged with feedback like ‘never change’ or “we appreciate that about you.” And yet what follows hasn’t always been consistent with the encouragement. People pull away, don’t invite me back to continue the discussion, exclude me (or at least it feels that way). That hurts.
Have you ever met someone at a social or networking event and engaged in small talk. The conversation seems to flow naturally into something more than superficial chit chat and its feels kinda nice. Only for them to slowly tune you out then eventually step away, maybe even go so far as to avoid you for the rest of the evening/event? Sure, it could be that you don’t click, and that’s okay. But, you can’t shake the feeling that it might have been because of something you said except you can’t, for the life of you, figure out what it was?
That happened to me so often that I swung the other direction. Whenever I’d meet someone new or find myself in any social situation, I’d hold back. I’d cover. I’d try to play the part of whatever it was I thought they expected of me. Only then I’d come off as fake, insincere. The result was the same: they eventually tune out and walk away.
Damned if you. Damned if you don’t.
That feeling of isolation hurts. It’s like being that kid at the playground that never gets picked to be on the team. So, rather than risk that pain, I’d retreat. I’m an extrovert, but I learned it was safer to be a social introvert.
As I worked on becoming more self-aware, I started to connect the dots - how my words and behaviors landed on others. I noticed that the ‘pull away’ would happen whenever I let my guard down and “enthusiastically” shared my perspectives, ideas and heartfelt reactions. As I started to pay closer attention to the difference between my intention and my impact, I realized that my "enthusiasm" was interpreted as bluntness. I wasn’t reading the room. I wasn’t slowing down to process the feedback I was getting from the other person. I might not even be listening. Maybe I was just waiting for my turn to speak. Yikes. That was an embarrassing moment of self-awareness. Painful, too. I never wanted to hurt someone; to be that person. Yet here I was. Not all the time, but enough to realize I had some work to do.
It doesn’t matter what I say. It only matters what you hear.
It took awhile, but I learned to calibrate myself. The difference between direct and blunt isn’t straightforward. It's more of a spectrum. And it is all about the other person’s perspective. It truly doesn’t matter what I intended. The only thing that matters is the impact. Today, I have a saying: “It doesn’t matter what I say. It only matters what you hear.”
When I am being my authentic self, I am generally direct. I say what I mean. I also mean what I say. I have been known to disagree with myself, and I have been known to correct myself – all in the same conversation. I haven't mastered the art of conversational subtlety. So, I learned that I need to stay present and self-aware, so that in my “enthusiasm” to share and connect, I am also being thoughtful. And I need to slow down and listen, so that I notice my impact and can calibrate in real time.
I remind myself of that saying daily and acknowledge that I will always need to be diligent about calibrating myself so that my directness doesn’t hurt, offend or ignore someone else. I don’t always get it right, but I am always trying. I’m still a social introvert, but I’m getting better.
And that feels really good.