Pick up and read a business magazine and you’re likely to get personnel advice such as “Never criticize an employee directly.” Other books or speakers encourage you to “sandwich” the criticism between two positives. For example, if an employee is continuously late, a supervisor is instructed to say, “James, you’re a valued employee here at Acme Widget Enterprises. However you’ve been coming to work late quite a few times. Hey! Good job on last week’s budget report!”
James only remembers what he wants…that he’s a valued employee and he does great budget reports. While we always try to treat people with respect, there comes a time when bluntness is needed. Forget the subtle hints and e-mail reminders. Disregard the sandwich routine and simply state the facts.
A Blunt Example
At a speaking/leadership conference, the class required everyone to frequently give short presentations or mini-speeches to the group. Ed, a sales rep, had great content in his speeches, yet cleared his throat with a slight “Ahm” after every 3-4 sentences. While it was noticeable in his speeches, no one mentioned it, thinking he might have some allergy or throat condition. At the end of the second day, small groups formed and critiqued each other’s speeches. Someone in Ed’s group tried tactfully to mention Ed might want to watch his throat clearing habit. It obviously had little affect, since the “Ahm’s” continued, even in ordinary conversation.
Then it happened. During the closing hour of the conference, Ed gave a five-minute speech. He had a great opening, maintained eye contact, and even used a few props. Of course by now the rest of the class silently counted his throat clearing sounds while he presented. Ed barely finished his sentence when the instructor asked him, “Ed, do you have some sort of throat problem?” “No” answered Ed.
“Then stop clearing your throat. It’s an annoying habit and it interferes with people listening to you. I’d never hire you because I don’t want to listen to someone say ‘Ahm’ every 15 seconds,” said the instructor. Ed told the group his wife had mentioned the habit several years ago, but he simply disregarded her suggestion. The instructor went on to suggest his wife tap his arm or cough herself whenever Ed went into his throat clearing routine. He actually thanked the instructor and wondered out loud why no one else had ever mentioned the annoying habit. Sometimes you just have to be blunt.
Three Ways To Be Nicely Blunt
Without being rude or demeaning, here are three ways to communicate when “bluntness” is needed.
1. Have other communication attempts failed? If so, sometimes a direct, yet non-confrontational approach is the only way to make your point. Begin the conversation with, “Steve, I’ve tried to talk to you about this before, and it looks like I need to be more direct.” Then state exactly what you want to say in a calm voice.
2. Be specific. Instead of saying, “Susan, you leave work early lots of times,” try, “Susan. I’ve recorded on this calendar the number of times you’ve left work early. According to this record, that’s been six days since February 1st.” Being factual keeps the conversation on a non-confrontational level. Stick with the facts and avoid generalizations or veiled name-calling.
3. Don’t take the person’s reaction personally. Most likely they’ll be argumentative and upset. Realize that’s their way of dealing with what you just said. If the person is very upset, listen to their opinions, then offer to continue the discussion in an hour after they’ve calmed down.
I recently had the unusual experience of appearing on the FOX reality show, Trading Spouses. For one week, I lived with a family and their mom stayed with my husband and daughter. The dad where I stayed was very set in his ways. He insisted his wife do all the cooking, cleaning taking care of the three kids and run a business from home. He barked orders and yelled at his kids. His wife told me she had tried tactfully to get him more involved with the kids and to be more respectful to her. Her gentle words had little impact on his uncouth behavior. I had one week to get this guy in shape!
When I saw that tact and “sandwiching” statements weren’t getting through, I tried a more direct approach.
While out at a restaurant, I said, “Tell me how your son feels when you say he’s a sissy and golf’s like a girl. Did you see the look on your daughter’s face when you refused to go bowling with her? You need to realize you are not king in this house and other people have feelings also. Just because you’re in a bad mood doesn’t mean you have the right to take it out on other family members.”
I could tell no one had talked to him like this before. Everyone walked on eggshells, living in fear he would yell at them. I calmly and assertively told him how I observed his negative influence on his family. The next day, he admitted he needed to change, so that his children wouldn’t hate him. Am I a miracle worker? No. But there comes a time when bluntness is more effective then gentle hints.
Another Blunt Example
Want a great, yet disgusting example of when bluntness is required? An employee at a management firm (who shall go by the pseudonym of Jane Doe) lacked social skills. While her work was adequate, Jane’s behavior in the lunchroom caused many a complaint from co-workers. She ate quickly, then sat and stared at other people. No conversation, just a simple and constant stare. People would try and engage her in conversation or get her to eat slower, but to no avail.
While this habit was annoying, it was just a lead-up to what happened after 5-10 minutes of staring. Without being too graphic, as people ate lunches, Jane sat at the cafeteria table and put her finger in her nose and then into her mouth. No amount of hinting to get her to stop did the trick. Finally her supervisor took her aside and simply said, “Jane, it is a disgusting habit to put your finger in your nose and then your mouth. Other employees don’t want to sit next to you when you do that. Please stop.” Jane looked a bit taken back, yet agreed to stop. Suddenly the cafeteria was once again a pleasant place to eat lunch. Sometimes you just have to be blunt.
Silvana Clark is a business speaker who uses humor, contests, props and PANIC buttons to help businesses cope with change and reduce stress. If you want your own computer PANIC button, check out www.panicbuttons.com. Or, if you want a speaker for your conference or training event, check out www.silvanaclark.com.