Direct And Indirect Communication

What does it mean to communicate directly versus indirectly?

When we have clarity on what we want and need, we open up space to communicate directly. Saying what we mean and meaning what we say. This can be super challenging if we were raised with a lot of indirect or sideways communication. We can now begin to shift our ways of communicating with others and ourselves to speak our needs plainly and directly. We can learn to communicate directly and in so doing honor ourselves and the people we communicate with.

Direct communication means stating what you want and need in a simple, straightforward way without excessive explanation, excuses, disclaimers, emotional pleas.

You communicate from an emotionally clean space. Meaning that you’re not trying to manipulate anyone to attempt to make them feel something.

You know that that’s not possible because each of our thoughts creates our feelings. But sometimes we communicate indirectly, in a way to attempt to make someone feel something.

This is often unconscious and it often looks pretty darn manipulative.

Indirect communication is when you hide or don’t acknowledge your true intentions or motivations. You don’t say them plainly, simply, and directly.

Communicating indirectly is often all we know. What we’re taught as kids, by society, our culture, the geography of where we grew up, etc. If direct communication is your norm and what you know, then someone communicating indirectly may be experienced as evasive, manipulative, sneaky. You might think that person untrustworthy or even dishonest.

If you’re accustomed to communicating indirectly, if that’s your norm, then someone stating their needs directly, may feel harsh, rude, or mean. All these reactions are caused by your thoughts about the situation, the person you’re talking to and how you perceive them. It’s all a choice.

I want to remind you to pause and to bring compassion and self-love in, particularly as these concepts may resonate for you.

We generally communicate in the ways that were modeled for us growing up.

If a parent was never direct and clear, you may copy that form of communication. Or you may have developed a very direct way of communicating if what was modeled didn’t work for you.

An example of direct communication may be “hey Luca, I’d love to hang out. I’m free Friday night at seven.”

An example of indirect communication may be “hey, so Luca, it would be cool to hang out if you’re not too busy or like, if you don’t have other plans. I’m sure you’re busy, right? Like, you’re probably really busy.”

In this first example, you’re stating your wants clearly. I’m free Friday night at seven. In the second, you’re giving your power away. Couching your want in a lot of BS. Likely, the goal is to: (1) not make the other person feel pressure, which isn’t something you can control no matter how you say it, and (2) not get vulnerable.

Hey Luca, I’d love to hang out.

Often we don’t state exactly what we want because we’re afraid of putting ourselves out there too much.

The way you talk to yourself is often the way you talk to others. So if you fear feeling your feelings or being vulnerable with yourself, you may project that onto others.

It makes total sense that you would do that until you bring your attention to it, recognize it, own it, give it love, and can thus begin to shift it.

When you communicate indirectly, you demure. You don’t own your own preferences and give them importance. You put what you imagine the other person wants or needs ahead of your own wants and needs. You imagine the other person’s response and attempt to protect against it when you don’t need to.

Other people can think anything they want about you. It’s none of your business, and it has nothing to do with you.

The person who loses out in the end when you don’t communicate your needs in a direct and clear way is you.

You lose out each and every time.

Sometimes our indirect communications look more like actively working to try to get someone else to feel something without actually saying what we want. This is that often unconscious manipulation that’s part and parcel of indirect communication.

For example, this happened with a client of mine recently. She’s a school teacher and they got let out early. It wasn’t expected, and she called her partner and was like, hey, we got let out of school early. He didn’t pick up what she was indirectly putting down. Her veiled request was to be picked up so she wouldn’t have to walk the four or five miles home in work shoes.

Instead of saying, we got let out early, will you please come pick me up? She just said, so we get let out of school early and it’s so hot out and it’s such a long walk.

He said oh yeah, it sure it hot out there. He didn’t pick it up because she wasn’t saying it directly. He was at work. Whatever the situation is, the point is that she didn’t ask for what she wanted and needed clearly.

This was the issue that she brought to me. That night they were sitting on the couch and she took her shoes off and was rubbing her feet and was like, my feet are killing me from that walk home. In that moment, she was being indirect. She was being passive aggressive, and she was attempting to make her partner feel something.

Feel bad about not picking her up, feel bad about not picking up the indirect message she was sending. She was trying to manipulate him emotionally because she didn’t get what she wanted because she didn’t ask for it. This is super common.

Instead, you can make a direct statement: saying what you want, what you need, without the expectation that folks are going to hop to and do it immediately.

This is how we can communicate without trying to manipulate the people in our lives.

Being direct isn’t about being unkind. Quite the contrary. It’s kind to say: hi, I’d like it if you could help me with dinner and if you could each put your laundry away. Thanks.

It’s about stating your thoughts, wants, and needs clearly to avoid confusion, mis-communication, and resentment.

Any of those things can happen because we can’t ever control how other people hear us. What we can do is show up in the world for our relationships and most importantly, for ourselves by standing firm in our truth and stating it plainly and clearly.

It’s hard to have direct communication with others if you don’t have clarity on your thoughts, wants, and needs.

You may not feel confident in speaking those thoughts, wants, and needs in a clear and direct way.

However, doing so is way better for you because it allows you to say what’s on your mind. You can do your part to help prevent miscommunication and keep you aligned with yourself.

Versus playing that old game where we don’t say what we want, need, feel in a clear and direct manner. We do this often because we don’t want to upset someone else or evoke a feeling in them. That is a recipe for building resentment with ourselves and others.

When you practice thoughtful, direct communication, you create space for yourself to get clear on what you actually want to say.

If you just lean on the old habit of indirectly communicating or not speaking up, you never push yourself to get clear with you or with others.

You getting clear with you is the most important part of this process. Our modern interwebs and social media world plays a part in our confusion about what we want. There are so many shiny objects and people to compare ourselves with. There are so many people out there telling us what to want and thus of course, capitalism, patriarchy, we got to always call those out.

Those forces are always in our heads telling us what we want, what we need and what we should desire. All of that can cloud our ability to hear our own voice and to name our needs clearly.

So start with you, my darling, in getting clear with yourself for yourself.

Direct, clear communication is also good for the person you’re communicating with. It opens up real and honest conversation and gives you the chance to mutually get your needs met.

Simultaneously, if our direct communication is attached to a request, then you can talk it out and can figure out a solution that works for everyone. Instead of putting yourself in the martyr chair of not getting your needs met or putting other people in the place of having to know what your needs and your meaning are.

So we’ve got some homework. I want you to start by literally just asking yourself what you want in any given situation.

Do it out loud when you’re alone, or on the subway because who cares there, or in your mind. Acknowledge it.

I want it to be warmer in here, or I don’t want her to bring her kids over tonight when we have dinner. I want it to just be us.

Get comfortable with trying to hear that voice in your mind that says what you truly want and need. Remind that sweet voice in your brain that it will always be heard by you, and that others may not want or need the same thing and that’s okay.

You don’t need anyone’s approval of your wants.

You don’t need anyone else to do what you want them to do. You just get to voice it and thus, to show yourself that you can speak your truth and the world won’t crumble down around you.

I know that feeling of fear or worry about getting vulnerable and speaking my truth. As always, remember, you can do hard things. You can learn to hear your own desires and to voice them plainly, directly, without any extra BS, any emotional manipulation. You can state your truth.

The next step, my love, is to be your own watcher.

Start noticing and getting present to when you speak indirectly or directly. If some part of you is choosing to communicate indirectly, ask yourself why you’re doing it and try to dig into the motivation and intention behind your word choices.

Start with being gentle and loving with yourself. Again, you’re not bad or wrong for using indirect communication. It’s just a habit. A habit you can undo if you want to and it’s always your choice.

It’s going to take practice and that’s great. How lovely to get to practice something new? Especially something so foundationally self-loving, and so kind to others, which is an added bonus.

When that feels comfortable, when you feel awareness in your heart, mind, body, before, during, or after an indirect communication, pause. Bring love to yourself, and then pull back and try again.

One of the things my partner Ash and I have done is we’ve decided to give each other the grace and to allow each other to say ,“I’m working on speaking more directly and I just heard myself throw you an indirect. Can I try that one again?”

That’s something you could try to set up with the people you love in your world and even if the other person doesn’t agree to it in advance, it’s something you can definitely do. At work, at home, with your friends, with your partners, give it a try.

It’ll likely feel super uncomfortable. I mean, it felt terrible at first because I was still in the habit of beating myself up for like, not doing it right. And that’s okay. The more I practiced, the more I was able to bring compassion to myself to be my own watcher, to do so with peace and love in my heart.

Pausing is, as always, vital for making change. What has helped me the most is learning to bring a wee pause into my mind before speaking.

In that pause, I ask myself what I want and need to say and mentally strip all the indirect language from it and say it plainly in my mind.

Please, turn down the volume on the music. Please do your dishes. Please return my pen. No complications, no BS, no padding. Please, lower your volume if you’re going to be speaking to me. Please don’t swear at me. This is not cruel, harsh or mean. In fact, it’s the first part of setting a healthy boundary.

Get to know yourself ever more. Be your own watcher. Learn to listen to that voice inside you that says I want, I need. Here is my limit. Here is my boundary. I get to speak this.

You can take this work on, you can make it your own. You can learn how to get your point across in a way that honors you and the person you’re speaking to.

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Victoria Albina, NP, MPH

Victoria Albina, NP, MPH

Victoria Albina, NP, MPH is a certified life coach, breathwork facilitator, holistic Nurse Practitioner and host of the podcast Feminist Wellness.