Direct versus Indirect Communication

Last week, Lawrence and Michael presented a their experiences at the Secrets of Agile Teamwork workshop. The presentation was great, and the topic related to people’s behaviour (a topic that we can stand to talk more about). But throughout the panel, I found myself nagged by disagreements with the material. “That’s the stuff of blog-entries,” I thought.

One area that I found myself suspicious of was the discussion of a notion called “The Facade” or “The Mask”. The Facade, in this context, referred to the stuff that I know about myself that I choose not to reveal. The concept, according to the presenters, is important mostly for helping people to see that there’s often stuff going on in conversations that people might not be aware about.

Michael acted out this kind of dialogue:

&#8220 Person 1: Why don’t you do a Lunch and Learn?

Person 2: Well, I don’t really have time.

Person 1: We could make some time by freeing up your schedule.

Person 2: But I don’t have a topic

Person 1: We have a list of topics you could pick from.

Person 2: But there are people more qualified than me.


What Person 2 hasn’t directly said is “I’m painfully shy”, but if that’s information that influencing the nature of the conversation, it may seem strange to Person 1. The entire conversation seems to be “suggestion” followed by “reason the suggestion can’t be taken”.

Hearing this, I was reminded about conversations I’ve had in online fora about the nature of direct communication versus indirect communication. To me, the conversation seems like a classic “indirect communicator talking to direct communicator” mis-alignment.

And I guess that one of my big beefs with this notion of The Facade is that the conversations I’ve had about direct versus indirect communication have gotten away from applying value judgements to either form, whereas I feel like the language around Facade (a word which means, “the face of a building” or “a deceptive outward appearance”) seems much more judgemental.

Here are some interesting snippets of conversation I’ve had. In one example, a friend of mine told how her mother-in-law would come over to her house, look at the window, and say, “My, what a nice, fresh breeze!” According to my friend, it took her a long time to realize that what the mother-in-law meant was “It’s very cold in here.” Further, if my friend would say something like “would you like me to close the window?” her mother-in-law would say “I certainly wouldn’t want to tell you what to do in your own house!”

This is a pretty clear (albeit polarizing) example of indirect communication. When this example was first brought up, there was a lot of outcry from the direct communicators who lamented, “How could this woman possibly be understood?” (Direct communicators often have the “mindreader” complaint about indirect communicators: “you expect me to be a mindreader; you never just say things plainly.”)

This example started a huge debate that was initially very judgemental about indirect communication. The conversation used phrases like “passive-aggressive trap-laying”.

Contrary to what direct communicators think, when indirect communicators communicate with each other their communication is very information rich and unambiguous.

Another friend of mine is Japanese-American, and she once told a story about business conversation in Japan. Imagine this situation: you have to take a day off on Monday to take your kid to the dentist. One way of handling this situation is to say to your manager, “I’m not going to be here on Monday; I have a family obligation.” That works. Simple, direct communication.

And, in Japan, tremendously rude, according to my friend. There’s no room in the conversation for your manager to participate. Really, all that’s left for your manager to say is “okay.” Here’s a better form of the conversation, according to my friend:

&#8220 Employee: I hope things aren’t too busy on Monday.

Manager: Why do you hope that?

Employee: I think I might not be here on Monday.

Manager: Oh, why? What’s happening?

Employee: Well, my daughter needs to see the dentist.

Manager: Oh, I hope it’s just a routine visit.


And this was an interesting reversal of the judgement. In this example, direct communicators are seen as brash and impolite.

Some of my friends who come from southern U.S. states also talk about the politeness requirements of conversation as well. For them, conveying facts is far less important that being polite and ensuring that the person you’re speaking to is comfortable. For direct communicators, this sounds very foreign.

The only way out of this conflict is to recognize that these different communication styles exist, and people believe in them for legitimate reasons, and neither is an objectively better style than the other (although there are contexts where it might be useful to use one form over the other).

So it’s with some annoyance that I see a pretty clear example of indirect communication being described as “information the speaker chooses not to share” and that this whole example is used to describe a “facade” that people have.

Maybe some of this is lost in translation: perhaps if I heard the original speakers, I wouldn’t find these terms as troubling.

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