Essay

Communication: Throwing the ball so others can catch it

“You are unusually direct,” Elsa said to me. She was one of the first people I hired in my first management role, in the late 1990s. She said this to me on a few occasions as we worked on a large project together. I took it as a compliment then, but with hindsight I see that Elsa found my forthrightness to be challenging.

I say half-jokingly that I was this direct because I have hillbilly and blue-collar roots. My dad grew up in the hills of West Virginia. His family moved to Indiana to find factory and construction work. Dad worked in a farm-equipment factory while I grew up. In the culture I came from, anything less than saying it straight — no matter how much the words hurt — is seen as being untrustworthy.

Handley, WV
Handley, West Virginia, pop. 350 — where my dad’s family is from

I was proud of my direct manner. I believed that my forthrightness was good and valuable. It came from a place of wanting good outcomes for the company, customers, and my co-workers. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, but that’s how I was sometimes perceived.

I’d been a manager for about 10 years when the fellow I worked for at the time said it to me: “Jim. You’ve got to stop leaving dead bodies behind when you talk. Learn some tact.” He told me he’d like to see me move up in the organization, but not while this behavior stood in my way.

That got my attention. I had been pitching fastballs at peoples’ foreheads. That boss coached me in throwing drifts that others can catch. I’ve practiced it ever since, and have built reasonable skill. It has unlocked all sorts of opportunity for me. It has helped me build influence and trust.

It took a long time for more nuanced communication to not feel wrong. It turns out I’m not among my hillbilly family, and I’m not working a blue-collar job. I’m working with midwestern professionals, and the rules are different.

I revert to my natural form when I’m anxious, over-stressed, or very tired. Those are not my finest moments.

But there are times when speaking directly is valuable. Emergencies are one such time. A couple companies ago I managed the testing team. Production went down while all of the site operations managers were at a conference. I was ranking manager, so I dove in and, using my natural directness, led the team to quickly find root cause and get Production back up again. One engineer praised me: “You came outta nowhere and crisply and efficiently drove the train back onto the track. I’ve never seen this side of you!”

Another time is when I think I see something critical that nobody else does, and nuanced communication is not getting the ball across the plate. A flat statement can grab attention and change the conversation. It can also blow up in my face, so it’s a calculated risk. I’m hoping it works because it seems so out of character. “Whoa, Jim is really strident about this one. He’s usually so collegial. Maybe we should listen a little more closely.”

Finally, sometimes you have to say a flat “no” to a challenging request. I try very hard to find a way to say yes while highlighting the tradeoffs I or my team will have to make. “Could you deliver this feature two weeks earlier?” “Yes, if I pause work on this other feature.” Or, “Yes, if we trim scope and accept greater quality risk.” Or, “Yes, if we can flow some of the work through this other team.” But if scope, quality, and team are fixed and don’t support the timeline, I’m left to say no, and I do so plainly.

I will always wish I could be direct all the time. It’s how I’m made. But I care more about being effective than leaning into my basic nature.

I first shared this post on my software blog, here. It felt like a general enough topic to share here as well. It expands on a comment I left on another post on this subject, on Johanna Rothman’s blog, here.

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14 thoughts on “Communication: Throwing the ball so others can catch it

  1. Basil Berchekas Jr says:

    That’s interesting where your Dad grew up…I have close cousins from Williamson, West Virginia, (Mingo County) on the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River (demarking the boundary between West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky which was famous (or infamous) as Hatfield and McCoy country. Williamson is about 60 miles south of Huntington West Virginia on US 52. Just thought I’d mention it…visited a number of times there.

  2. -N- says:

    Bluntness has its points as it can really get the point across. Some people hear the subtle, others don’t get it. I personally prefer straight talk rather than skirting an issue. I like clarity. However, presentation is everything. Bluntness can be attenuated with phrasing in, such as “I really don’t know how to say this, but . . . ” and then having a discussion to help the other person understand what you mean. Yelling is not subtle and is very direct, pussyfooting around leaves people confused. Etc. Thoughtful post!

    • I prefer straight talk as well, and value it. One of the things I like about working with software developers is that they do tend to be direct. Some of them are also caustic, which is a challenge. Upper management I’ve worked with over the many years I’ve been doing this tend to be indirect, to the point of me just wanting to yell, “Say what you mean!”

      I’ve worked hard over the years to learn to read my audience and match my communication style/intensity to the audience and the situation. I keep working on it, as none of these skills come naturally to me.

  3. Coming from a Southern military family, I learned to be a pretty blunt object. In LA, it worked OK, but after moving to the PNW, I had to learn some finesse. A lot of folks up here have this whole passive-aggressive vibe which is a huge turn-off for me.

    So, I can definitely relate to your discomfort with tailoring the message. Feels too much like talking around things.

    • I wish I could find or create a world of people where my natural style fits. But my life isn’t turning out that way, and I want to be effective. So I’ve learned different communication styles. I can say that the more you do it, the less uncomfortable it feels. But when I work with someone who values my natural directness, good heavens can we get a lot more done in less time.

  4. Patricia Jeremiah says:

    I admire your frankness Jim. We should all want to deal with truth. Jesus said to let your yes be yes and your no be no and that anything else is of the evil one. He was also a very blunt speaker. It was the serpent in the garden that was subtle if I remember right. How did that work out for y’all?

    • I’m all for truth. Sometimes it’s best applied with a feather, and sometimes it’s best applied with a hammer. Wisdom is knowing when each is appropriate.

  5. You should move to Yorkshire. Everyone here is blunt so we don’t notice unless we go somewhere else. I was accused of the same thing many times while living abroad. In Asia people said it was refreshing as they are naturally the opposite.
    Here it is, say what you mean and call a spade a spade. It was a bit of a culture shock when I returned. I still prefer it though.

  6. I don’t have much tact, however i don’t know why people find directness rude. I like the point about roots. I’m from central California where people tend to be more tolerant then Oregon. HOWEVER, I haven’t been back there in 15 years, so maybe among today’s “don’t offend anyone” climate and state workplace rules, California may be the same. I find that people my age and older, and kids up to 11- don’t care. Ironically the one time this worked for me was in my current job as a Nanny. The dad is direct, so the mom said my bluntness would be great for the position. I don’t trust anyone who “dresses things up” it drives me batty. Suffice it to say I’m terrible in unstructured situations and have given up on that environment. I will say that I’ve learned how to “small talk” living in a small town, because it’s unavoidable. But I remain blunt. People either find it refreshing or distasteful there is no inbetween lol

    • My wife finds my directness to be challenging. To her, it’s like I got out a bat and hit her over the head with my message. She doesn’t need directness to get the point. So I try to dial back my directness — we have a happier marriage as a result.

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