The DIRECT COMMUNICATION SERIES: Direct Communication Isn’t Mean–But It May Feel Like It

by | Aug 9, 2021 | Connecting | 26 comments

Why Direct Communication Feels Mean While It's Not

When you start asking for things directly, it can feel like you’re being really mean.

But what if the opposite is true? What if speaking directly is actually a way to be kind?

We’re at the start of our direct communication series this month on the blog, and we’ve looked at 5 barriers to direct communication, and the 6 elements of direct communication.

Today I want to tackle a thornier issue that makes direct communication difficult: It can feel like we’re being mean.

And here’s why: We often have different goals going into communication.

One goal is to keep the relationship on an even keel. We don’t want to rock the boat. We want everyone to feel as if we’re totally okay.

The other goal can be to deepen understanding and intimacy.

To do the first, it can often be better to withhold information that may actually rock that boat. To do the second, we may have to give information that’s going to make someone uncomfortable.

For instance, let’s go back to that incident that I wrote about in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, and that I talked about on Friday: 

6 elements of Direct communication

From 6 Elements of Direct Communication:

A couple was washing dishes after Thanksgiving dinner when his mom came into the kitchen and started talking about Aunt Betty, and how lonely she was in the nursing home, and how few residents were still of sound mind that she could talk to. When the mom left the kitchen, the wife turned to her husband and said, “your mom wants you to visit Aunt Betty.” The husband looked flabbergasted and said, “If Mom wanted that she would have asked me!”

He called his mom back into the kitchen and said, “are you trying to get me to visit Aunt Betty?” His mom, relieved, replied: “well, of course! I’ve been waiting!”

Why didn’t the mother just ask directly for the son to visit the aunt in the nursing home?

If she asked directly, he could refuse. 

If he refused, that might mean something about him. It means that he doesn’t care about his aunt, and she may secretly be afraid that’s true. So she doesn’t ask directly so that she doesn’t have it confirmed that her son is selfish.

If she asked directly,  he may be upset at her.

He may think that she’s being unreasonable, expecting him to take time out of his busy schedule to go see his aunt, who is only a distant relation. He may become angry at his mom and not want to spend time with her anymore.

But if she asks indirectly…

She has the potential that  he will do what she wants anyway, but she does not have to risk confirming that he may be selfish, or confirming that their relationship is a tenuous one where a little request like this could anger him.

Asking indirectly allows the illusion of a close relationship to continue.

Nobody is upset at anybody. She may be secretly disappointed that he didn’t see his aunt, but, at the same time, she never actually asked him to. And so she’s able to feel as if they have a great relationship and she has a great son, even though this has not actually been proven.

Asking indirectly allows everyone to operate on surface relationships–which is what most of us do. We allow others to save face by never actually having to admit to anything selfish or bad because we don’t directly ask them to go outside of their comfort zone. That way we are never rejected, and they are never shamed. 

Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?

There’s a huge difference between the two. And if you don’t get it right–you’ll never be able to feel truly intimate in your marriage.

There’s a better way!

When you start asking directly, you upset this balance that virtually everyone participates in.

Whenever you upset a balance, people are going to be upset because it feels strange. It’s like you’re directly calling people out, almost like a bull in a china shop. It will seem like you’re the one who is being rude.

But what you’re actually doing is basing your relationship on Truth. 

Jesus said that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Jesus didn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths. He said them out loud. And those around Him still felt incredibly loved, even though he was upsetting the apple cart. But we can never have true intimacy based on anything other than truth. If we’re going to have intimate relationships, we need to be able to share what we’re thinking and feeling. If someone cannot handle that, then that is a sign that the relationship is not as close as we thought it was–that the other person doesn’t necessarily value us the way that we wanted to be valued. That’s a scary, scary thing to know.

However, the converse is also true. You can never really know if someone truly does value you unless you speak up directly. Many of us would rather risk never being truly known than we would risk never knowing if someone really loved us and valued us. We’d rather not have close relationships than we would have it confirmed to us that the people we love don’t necessarily invest in us in the same way.

And you know what? That makes perfect sense. It’s nice to live in an illusion, and direct communication breaks the illusion.

But it’s also not real. And at some point we are going to have to decide if we want real or not.

Now, there’s one more point before we let this one go:

Direct communication may not seem like it, but it’s actually quite kind.

It can seem kind to allow people to save face and to never ask for directly what you want. But telling people how you feel and what you want and what you expect takes so much of the guesswork and emotional energy out of relationships. (and this is doubly true in the workplace, by the way.)

How many times have you gotten upset at your spouse because he or she didn’t read between the lines and figure out that something was really important to you? Or they were trying to read between the lines, but they read totally the wrong lines, and figured you wanted something totally different?

It happens all the time with gifts. Someone thinks they’re hinting clearly about the thing that they really want, while the spouse is desperately trying to figure it out, and picks up on what they think is a hint but really wasn’t. (“Didn’t Susie’s new raincoat compliment her eyes so well?” And suddenly you hav a new raincoat when you already had two, when what you really wanted was an electronic tea maker).

And you feel hurt, but they also feel hurt because they genuinely tried. They just picked up on the wrong thing.

It happens with gifts, but it happens with daily, run of the mill things, too. Maybe what really, really matters to you is that your spouse drop what he or she is doing when you come in the door and give a big hug and kiss and show them how happy you are that they’re home. But at the same time your spouse is always complimenting you on all the tidying that you got done when they were out. So you start to think that what’s really important is the tidying. So everytime before your spouse comes home you run around like a Tasmanian devil tidying all the kids’ stuff, and when they walk in the door you quickly stash the last few things and then run to the kitchen to stick some dishes in the dishwasher, and they’re left feeling lonely–like why is the housework and the condition of the house more important to you than they are?

And it wasn’t that at all! You just picked up on the wrong cues.

And you’re both upset at each other, and you both don’t feel loved.

But if you just said, “Hey, what really matters to me more than anything is that  you greet me at the door when I come home,” then all of this would have been averted.

A lot of us invest a lot of emotional energy trying to decode what our spouse says.

And, to be honest, some of us don’t try to decode, because we figure if it were important then they would ask. And so we’re not really communicating to each other what makes us feel close.

Over the long run, that drives distance between two people.

That’s why direct communication is kind. It lets people have a quick relationship “win” because you know what matters to each other. It lets you see what someone does care. It lets the other person in to your thoughts and feelings.

And it also reveals the condition of the relationship, as we’ll look at through the rest of the series.

What happens if you communicate directly, and your spouse ignores it or rejects it? We’ll deal with that soon.

But you know what? It’s still better to have a realistic and truthful view of your relationship, than to put all of your energy into maintaining a facade.

Direct communication is about Truth and Intimacy. Those are two good things. But they’re also hard things that we do have to fight for. That’s why it feels awkward. That’s why it feels vulnerable. But that’s also why it’s worth it.


While Direct Communication Feels Mean But It's Not

Does direct communication feel mean and awkward to you? Do you have a different communication style at home than you do at work? Let’s talk in the comments!

The Direct Communication Series

And please see my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, with lots on having difficult conversations and resolving conflict!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Wanda

    Thank you for this much needed message. I need to apply it today to a difficult conversation (not with my husband – with someone else) and I don’t want to. I appreciate this hard, honest truth.

  2. Anon

    What would you say if someone has trouble working up the courage to communicate at all, much less clearly articulating things kindly?

    I.e. “I don’t like it when you do X to me. Don’t do that again.”……the spouse listens, asks follow up questions, etc then communicates that the first sentence should have been enough, and it was harsh especially combined with the second sentence.

    Any words of wisdom in a situation like that?

    • Lindy

      Hello Anon, the general rule for this type of communication to move forward without the other person feeling attacked is to follow the “I feel…when you…” formula. For example, “I feel belittled when you do x to me. It really hurts my feelings.” It is best to leave space after that for the person to respond. If you issue an instruction (“don’t do that again”) you are communicating as an adult to a child and the respondent will not appreciate it and the conversation will not move forward in the way you want it to. Communicating adult to adult is the aim here.

      • Anon

        Thanks Lindy.

  3. A2bbethany

    This is the kind of article, that’s not real fun to read and convicting. Yeah yeah, I know I gotta go say that to him!
    I recently had a hard and Fairly heated conversation, and while it ended fairly well, it wasn’t fun at all! It’s not fun to be direct about your justified anger at the person you love, who let you down.

    And in a few days, I’ll need to explain that as a part of the moving on, I need a romantic gesture. Which isn’t natural to either of us. But when he does something that makes me completely feel ignored and invisible, a romantic gesture makes that memory fade.

    Also I remember a time my dad an I were lost in Nashville and I asked if he wanted to ask someone for directions. He was like “no that’s part of being a man, we don’t ask for directions! We drive until we figure it out.” We drove in circles for 20ish minutes before he found the way to get on the highway.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m using the directions example in tomorrow’s post! So silly really.

    • Boone

      I’ve driven in Nashville many times. I can assure you that it would have been a waste of time to ask for directions. I’ve never met anyone in Nashville that actually knew where anything was. To make things more confusing all of the main roads change names three times before you get where you’re going.

      • A2bbethany

        Yeah he used to travel up frequently enough to be decently familiar with the roads. But this time he couldn’t figure out how to get back to the highway from the downtown area. There were plenty of people walking around and I suggested that we could ask….I don’t remember why we didn’t try gps.
        I just thought it was interesting, because a bit before that trip, I was downtown Memphis with mom. And we couldn’t find parking for this event. Asking gave us the answer fairly quickly. That’s why 13 yr old me suggested we try.

  4. Elisia

    Thank you for this wonderful article- great for any relationship!!

  5. NT wife

    After 10 years of marriage I am JUST NOW beginning to scratch the surface of this. Here is something unusual: I’m 110% confident my husband is undiagnosed, high-functioning Asperger’s. Emotions mean very little to him – he doesn’t understand them at all. My family on the other hand – we THRIVE on emotions. We read between the lines to a fault. He is ALWAYS silent and I translate silence as displeasure. To make matters EVEN WORSE, expressing needs has always felt extremely selfish for me due to the culture I grew up in.
    We had the most difficult first 10 years (or I did…he was clueless and felt every incident of me coming to him about a problem was a one-time qualm that was settled the minute we finished discussing it). In addition to our problems NEVER even being close to getting addressed, our “discussions” were brief, went in circles, and got nowhere. I would stew over them for the next 6 months until I mustered the courage to try again and repeat the same frustrating cycle. I was taught to say “I feel this way” or “it makes me feel that way”. For someone who absolutely does not understand feelings, my husband took this to mean that these were MY issues that had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t until I saw a therapist who deals with AS that I began to learn just how specific I need to be….and I HATE it. It feels awful, demanding, rude and tactless. When I think I’m specific enough, i have to go back over my words and specify even more. However….my husband has not once taken my words the wrong way when I leave my emotions out of it and tell him what I need or want him to do.
    “I’m just feeling really bad about my physical appearance lately.”
    “Ok. I’ll send you some of my workouts.”
    Turned to
    “I need you today to tell me that you still think I’m pretty.”
    “Really? I think you’re gorgeous.”
    How is that NOT better?!
    My therapist said something that stuck with me: “Just because you have to ask him for something specifically and directly doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to give it to you. It just means that it hadn’t occurred to him what you wanted.”
    It’s still a huge learning curve and some days are better than others but we are coming SUCH a long way! I loved your article!
    P.S. obviously my circumstance is different and not everyone should avoid discussing emotions. In fact, through this form of communications I’m slowly teaching him how to understand how various things effect the way I feel and what that means. But direct communication really is a lost art! It’s really exciting when I manage to actually do it in the correct way, and hopefully I can continue to exercise and strengthen that muscle. Thank you so much for everything you do, Sheila!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s really helpful, NT wife! Thank you for sharing. I think a LOT of women can identify with what you’re saying here. And I think your therapist is right–it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to give it to you! He just didn’t know you needed it right now.

    • Roxy

      What a wise, paradigm-shifting thing your therapist said. I think that will help a lot of wives, whether their husbands are on the spectrum or not. It helped me!

  6. Meredith

    My mom has always been very passive aggressive, so I did not grow up in a household where direct communication happened. I also had a theology of “God will meet all your needs” that translates into “you aren’t allowed to advocate for yourself or stand up for yourself, you just have to hope that the people around you will notice what you need”, along with a husband who has naturally low emotional intelligence and very little relational intuition.

    It was deconstruction, therapy, and a whole lot of overdue direct communication that saved our marriage. Now, if there’s something my husband does that bothers me, instead of stewing about it silently for two months until it becomes a giant issue, I speak up and say, “hey, this bothers me.” I’ve learned how to be very vocal about my likes/dislikes/preferences in our sex life. When I need something, whether it’s a break from the kids or for him to make dinner or if I just need him to listen to me vent, I’m learning how speak up. And I’m learning how to fight back against the lies that tell me I’m not worthy of having my needs met, that my needs make me a burden. And I’ve had to abandon 90% of the faith I was raised in to get to this point, but I’m emotionally much healthier and happier than I ever was before. And I trust that the good fruit is from Jesus, even though I struggle with wondering if there’s anything left in Christianity for me.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I understand, Meredith. I’m so sorry that the church that was supposed to be Christ’s body ended up teaching you such unhealthy things. Don’t stop asking questions. I do believe that Jesus will show up in those questions.

  7. NM

    This is so good. I am really working on speaking up because I tend to wait until
    I’m upset to bring things up, and then it’s a much harder conversation. I am also learning to just sit with it and be ok if what I say does upset my husband. Like I have to tell myself, it’s ok, he’s human, he can be upset with me! So much bad teaching to undo that told me if he was upset, I must have approached it wrong. I have been thinking about Jesus and the rich you f ruler. When Jesus was done speaking, the man “went away sad,” and Jesus didn’t chase him down to soften or rephrase it. Sometimes the truth is hard to hear, and we need to let it be.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      YES! I love that point about the rich young ruler. We are all each individually responsible for our responses. Not the other person. And we have to let people respond as they choose. That’s really hard though!

  8. Jo

    There’s an interesting parallel post and discussion going on over at “must be this tall to ride dot com” in the post titled “Are You Afraid When the Elevator Doors Open?” (note: major warning for the entire blog on what some will consider naughty language, in both the blog posts and the comments).

    The bottom-line point that the major commenter is making is that men simply don’t listen to women, just and mainly because they ARE women, though men will listen to other men. There is no way for a woman to be nice enough, use the right-enough tone, pick the best time, or any other variable at all that might affect any conversation with a man, even her husband. Her point is that men simply do not listen to women.

    And in the church especially, why should men listen to women? Men have been taught for generations, centuries, millennia that they are the leaders, so why give a follower a hearing? Women simply can be ignored (unless it’s time for that whole male sexual-release thing, but I digress), because they’re either hormonal, emotional, or irrational based on either or both of the first two conditions.

    It might be nice to think that somehow, someway, we can get our husbands to listen, but for far too many of us, there simply is NO WAY for us to speak and them to hear. “Direct” and “nice” don’t really come into it at all, because the speaker is female and therefore ignore-able. Since we women can’t become men, there’s not really a whole lot we can do.

    This probably sounds cynical and pessimistic, but it’s simply based on hard reality and three-plus decades of experience. I, for one, am tired of beating my head against a brick wall. So I’m not going to anymore. Conversation will be limited to schedules and superficial topics from here on out, just to protect what little, if any, of my sanity remains.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Jo. We’re going to talk about this tomorrow and then in our podcast this week as well. It’s okay to tell your husband that this is not okay and not go along with him when he does not also listen. That’s really tough.

    • JennD

      I don’t have this issue with my husband but its happened SO many times in dealing with Christian leaders (all men of course) and my dad. I have tried no emotion, just facts; telling it in story format, being nice, being submissive…it doesn’t matter. Because like you said, they can’t hear women.

      • Louise

        I definitely struggle with direct communication, probably because I was modelled passive-aggresiveness and my personality is a peacemaker and I don’t like anyone being upset with me.
        My husband is very direct, says what he needs/wants and expects that it will happen. I like that he can be direct! When I have *tried* being direct, he takes it so bad/personally and reads into it too much and then sulks and disconnects from me. I can’t stand it so I end up telling him not to worry about it just so things can go back to how they were.
        I think I also struggle with being direct because I just don’t *know* what I need or even want. Or when I have expressed what I think I need, it usually gets ignored/forgotten. Thanks for your resources, I look forward to reading through them all!

  9. Laura

    Excellent series!

    I’m learning a lot about direct communication. This advice applies to all types of relationships. I live with my mother and we communicate so well that it doesn’t feel like work. Now, as for friendships, working relationships, and other relationships, I know there’s always room for improvement. Being single for so many years (except for 2 relationships throughout my adult years) has caused me to slack off a bit in the area of direct communication.

    When I was married during my 20’s, I could not use direction communication with him because he was verbally abusive and passive-aggressive. I tried, but he’d get upset and wouldn’t talk to me for several days until I gave him sex. Somehow he believed sex fixed everything. Nope, not at all.

    In my last serious relationship (which was a few years ago), I learned to communicate better. If I just wanted to vent, I’d say, “Don’t feel like you have to try and fix this. I just need to vent.” He was respectful about it. Every person is different, so communication is going to be different. How I communicate with my mother is not the same as how I communicate with a significant other.

  10. Anonymous for this one

    You know what’s really mean? Not being listened to.

    I am learning to just go ahead and speak up, be blunt, direct, and not afraid of the outcome, why? Because it is typically negative, anyway, so why not be clear and truthful?

    If I speak nicely and hint or skirt the issue to politely leave an option, I’m getting ignored. If I give an out, men are going to take one (not true gentlemen, of course).

    If I speak plainly and directly, they don’t like it and give me attitude or get defensive, but at least they got an earful of fact and know where I stand.

    It isn’t WHAT a woman is saying, or HOW she is saying it. It’s THAT she is speaking. Unless it is an ear-tickling, ego-boosting word, they don’t want to listen. I can literally see my husband stiffen up, his eyes shift and change, his body turn away from me, even if what I have to say is good or just information. The ONLY time I tend to see a positive willingness to listen is when he is starting to test the waters for sex. It’s amazing how men can become such good husbands when they want sex.

    Just last night my son mouthed off to me and even blame-shifted. I called him out on it. I should have disciplined him, but I was so busy with our pet, arranging emergency care with the vet, that I just didn’t have the time or mental space to arrange a consequence. But, as I clearly and firmly established that he was out of line, I watched him seemingly disregard me completely. But, regardless of how he takes it, I am giving it out. Boundaries and truth.

    It doesn’t matter how many times I say something. It doesn’t matter how plainly I say it. It doesn’t matter if I make sure he’s listened and even repeated it back to me. It doesn’t even matter if I write it on the family calendar. If it isn’t important to my husband, he will not remember it and accuse me of never telling him. (Thank God last time our son was like, “yeah dad, she told you at least 4 times. I was here when she did.”) But, then he gets upset that he feels left out of family plans. But, he 1. Doesn’t listen. 2. Doesn’t ask. 3. Hides in his room with the TV and his phone, door shut. I can’t work with that. So, that’s on him. I will inform, invite, but not wrestle and feel responsible, anymore.

    So, yes, direct communication needs to be a common adulting practice, BUT SO DOES LISTENING.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Absolutely. And I’m so sorry that this is the dynamic in your family. I absolutely feel for you. We’re going to be talking about the last element of direct communication–the follow through–later, but it sounds like you’ve already mastered that. You’re making plans whether he’s involved or not. You gave him warning, and then you’re just going along with it. I’m sorry that he’s not amenable to anything else. That’s really, really frustrating.

  11. Lyndall

    Hey! I wanted to point out that valuing direct communication is a cultural preference. In North America and Western cultures, direct communication is seen as a good thing. In other cultures, it can actually be rude. I think there can be healthy forms of indirect communication as well, so I’d caution against painting indirect communication as the problem. UNHEALTHY communication is the problem. Also, if one person is trying to use indirect communication and the other is using direct communication, that can cause issues. But in certain countries, indirect communication actual works better.

    Just wanted to remind people that this article is very culturally specific, and what kind of communication we use depends a lot on the country we’re in and the culture we’re from.

  12. Delie H

    This is so good! Definitely something I need to grow in. I did have a question though:
    A while back, my husband and I read your post about how husbands should initiate sex without turning off their wives. I don’t remember it in detail, but it seems like your advice involved being less direct. Is that an area where you don’t believe direct communication is the best route, or am I misunderstanding something? Thanks


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