Communicate with Directness & Sensitivity

How you communicate organizational messages is key to how they___re received

Communication of organizational goals and processes is essential to success at every level in the fire service. But many officers allow distractions and excuses to put necessary communication on the back burner, or they communicate such messages ineffectively. Without clear communication, the fire department becomes a swirling vortex of “Why didn’t you do what I told you?” and “You never told me to do that.”


Managers are often worried about being liked by their subordinates, and this can affect the way they deliver messages. How do you deliver uncomfortable or difficult messages, directives or assignments to staff?

Maybe you’re the officer who says, “I don’t agree with what the department is saying, but Chief Bryant said we have to do it because it’s department policy.” I call this “the invertebrate syndrome.” Although I never delivered the message to my staff in that way, that’s how the message is delivered to others.

To effectively communicate difficult messages, you must own the message: Use “I” rather than “they” statements, and emphasize how the directive supports the department mission and the community’s expectations.

Claiming responsibility for the message is one of the first lessons of leadership for a supervisor or manager, even if that message triggers emotional discomfort in sender and receiver alike.

Delivering Tough Messages

Next time you need to have a conversation with your crew on a potentially unsettling subject, try the following three guidelines that have worked for me:

1. Gain clarity on the subject of the message; 2. Supersede avoidance with courage; and 3. Execute the message.

Clarity refers to the quality of a message that enables it to be understood and considered. Be calm and think carefully through what you want to say. Communicating an unclear or accusing message is a primary mistake.

If you don’t understand the message from your boss, ask for clarification. If you don’t know why the change is occurring, your uncertainty will show through to your crew. Ask your boss what message the department is trying to convey and what the “end state” is supposed to look like.

After you’re clear on what message you’re supposed to be delivering, the biggest obstacle between you and the delivery of the message is avoidance. Avoidance is all about fear, and fear-based excuses come in deceptive packages. Some masquerade as caring about the recipient: “I wouldn’t want to hurt John’s feelings.” Others are masked in procrastination: “This isn’t the right time to sit down and discuss it.”

To combat avoidance, ask yourself three questions:

1. Is initiating this discussion serving the best interests of the person in question? 2. Would delivering this message be consistent with my (or the department’s) duties and responsibilities? 3. Are the justifications for not delivering this message driven by emotional factors, such as my fear of what the person might say or do, or my lack of confidence in myself?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, and there’s no clear rationale for waiting, it’s time to act. Execution of the message requires two critical elements: directness and sensitivity. Direct and insensitive messages won’t be heard; sensitive and indirect messages will be heard, but without understanding. The middle ground of “tough compassion” combines directness and sensitivity, enabling a message to heard, understood and appreciated.

Tip: Communicating with directness and sensitivity within the first 30 seconds of a difficult message increases the chances of a positive outcome. Have you ever experienced a supervisor engage in several minutes of small talk that they believe will cushion the harshness or surprise of a difficult message? I have, and it doesn’t work well. Such delivery is usually superficial and serves the sender, not the receiver.

Becoming accomplished at tough compassion — combining directness and sensitivity in the same message — is essential for company and chief officers. It may take some practice, but if you consciously work at mastering this approach, you can be confident that you’re more effectively fulfilling the responsibilities with which the department entrusted you.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.