Being indirect made me more effective

“Don’t sugarcoat it for me,” my coworker said to me last week, “I like being straightforward about things.” Since transitioning to the workforce, I’ve heard this more and more. Being direct seems to be the preferred way to communicate effectively.

Experts also agree. Karen Friedman, the author of Shut Up and Say Something, draws on her 15+ years of experience as a professional communicator and advises, “It is absolutely critical to be as direct, to the point and concise as possible.”

Communicating effectively is a major part of my job as a product manager. However, in the last year, I’ve realized that in many cases, being direct is not always the most effective policy. Many times, communicating indirectly has helped me get things done.

Imagine I am faced with the following (imaginary) decision at work: who is the better basketball player, Stephen Curry or Chris Paul?

This is an ambiguous question with no clear answer. However, since I’m a Warrior’s fan, I want everyone to recognize Stephen Curry as the better point guard. My job as the product manager is to communicate this decision and the reasons behind it.

My coworker from LA, who communicates very directly, sends me the following email:

I think Chris Paul is the better point guard. He has more assists per game (9.9 vs. Curry’s 6.9) and also has more steals per game (2.3 vs. Curry’s 1.7). This means he is better offensively AND defensively, so the decision is clear.

What are my options for a response?

Responding with directness

A direct response would use clear, definitive statements to express a strong opinion. It isn’t necessarily blunt, but it does get straight to the point.

I have to disagree. Paul has more assists, but Curry has more points per game: 24 to Paul’s 22.8, which mean he is a more effective scorer. Defensively, Curry has more blocks in total than Paul (89 vs. Paul’s 69). Based on these stats, I stand by my original claim that Curry is the better point guard.

This type of response expresses a clear opinion and lists the items that support that opinion. However, this also can trigger the beginning of a very long argument, and may also end up causing hard feelings on both sides.

My goal is to establish agreement with my decision. Instead of getting straight to the point, I’ve found other ways to achieve the same result.

Asking questions

One method that is more indirect is to wrap my opinions as questions instead of declarations. Consider this alternate response:

I don’t think that those numbers paint the whole picture. Can we really judge a player based on those two stats (assists and steals)?
I know Curry is also famous for his 3-point shooting and his ridiculous ball-handling. What happens if we compare their scoring ability?

The first question is rhetorical — the answer must be no. But, instead of attacking my coworker’s points, the question helps them see the flaw in their own argument. It also places the two of us on the same side, since now we at least both agree on this small point.

The second question about scoring ability is a leading question, since I already know that Curry’s stats are better if “we compare their scoring ability.” However, the question itself guides my coworker to arrive at the same conclusion on their own.

Leaving room for discussion

Alternatively, I will often respond with a more open-ended message that leaves room for back and forth. For example:

Stephen Curry is asked to score more though, which could mean he has fewer chances to get assists because he needs to shoot the ball himself. I’m also not sure that steals are the perfect measurement for how well someone plays defense. Just thinking off the top of my head here — we should take a look at defensive efficiency as well as blocks. Let me know your thoughts.

This type of response is less aggressive than a direct approach. It puts the ball back into my coworker’s court and leaves room for them to expand their view of the situation.

It also prevents the discussion from becoming a black and white issue. For example, there is potential that we could agree that Curry shoots better, or that defense is more than steals. Instead of a “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality, it leads to both sides finding something to agree on.

Establishing rapport

Finally, I’ve realized that establishing common ground makes discussions more effective and leaves both sides feeling more satisfied. We should not have to strip an message of all empathy for the sake of “getting to the point.” Here’s an example:

Thanks for the note, Emily. I have to agree that Chris Paul is really good at steals. Just saw the one he had on Tony Parker last night — ridiculous. That said, our whole town was going crazy yesterday because Stephen Curry won MVP of the NBA. Curry getting that award makes him the better player in my mind — and I would say the same thing if Paul won MVP.

It’s hard to hate the sender! Even if the discussion continues, this kind of message helps separate the person from the decision at hand. This in turn leads to discussions that are more friendly and effective.

My discussions at work involve product features instead of Curry and Paul, but the concepts still apply. Both through email and in person, I often will use a combination of questions, open-endedness, and common ground to make popular decisions.

What are your thoughts? Tweet me at @realericlu. Thanks for reading ☺