Clear communication: try more straight talk to get what you want

Updated to Habits on September 28, 2014.

Waffling is for waffles – when you want something done, use straight talk.

I used to worry about hurting people’s feelings with my words. Then I got old and curmudgeonry and all bets were off. 

It’s not that I’m insensitive. I think I’m as sensitive as any man who likes Bruce Willis movies and good sushi. It’s not about that.

It’s just that I’ve learned unclear language gets unclear results. Clear communication does.


I remember overhearing one of my employee’s phone conversation with a client. It was pretty clear the call didn’t go all that well and I knew I would have handled it better (don’t we always?). 

“Well, that call could have gone better.” I suggested, somewhat hesitantly.

“Oh?” the employee replied. 

“Yeah, I couldn’t help overhearing that call.” I admitted “And I think more time to understand their needs might have helped.” I offered.

“Oh, really?” 

A bit confused by their reaction, I ploughed on “Put yourself in their shoes.” I suggested “They don’t want to back down, so we need to give them more time to think about the best solution.” 

“Sure. Uh…thanks.”

Maybe my intention was good, but the delivery had all the oomph of a wet noodle.


People need to know where you stand and what you want. Clear communication saves time and avoids stupid, costly mistakes. 

When I’m teaching delegation skills I caution managers to avoid words and expressions open to interpretation. Here’s a short list (on the left) of limp, ambiguous language, with better alternatives (on the right):


“Next time, try to do that better”

“I need to see you making more calls”

“Can you get that to me sooner?”

“We need more sales”

“Get it to me as soon as you can”

“Can you do a check-in?”


“Please have John read it over first”

“…two more calls by Wednesday”

“I need it by Thursday”

“I need you to have three more sales by Friday”

“Please have it done by Thursday”

“You need to call the client back”

Okay, those are easy ones. Remove the vague language, replace with clear directives, done. Let’s bring up the heat by going into the bedroom.


I need honesty in my marriage. Of course, I want love, respect, sharing, trust, and a whole host of other needs. But, honesty trumps them all. 

couple fighting bedroomAnd it took me a long time to get there. 

I remember many times trying to express my hurt or disappointment through actions. I would get quiet, leave the room, pout, not respond – childish, I know – in the moment, those were the tools I knew. As some wise person once said “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

I’ll let you guess at the results.

“No, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.” Rolling Stones

If you feel like you aren’t as clear as you want, here’s a great little formula that’s gotten me out of many tough conversations:

“When you _____________, I felt _____________, and I’m wondering _____________” 

This simple 3-part sentence says it all: what happened, how it impacted me, what I need to know. Notice, this is not about telling the other person they are wrong, how you were impacted, or blaming them. Instead you state facts (here’s what happened), you share your reaction (which they can’t dispute) and get them talking. 

Here it is again, with more detail:

“When you ___[said, did, didn’t]__________, I felt ______[hurt, confused, threatened]___________, and I’m wondering _____________”

Here are some examples:

“When you arrived 10 minutes late, I felt frustrated, and I’m wondering what happened?”

“When you get angry like this, I feel blamed.  I’m wondering if that’s what your intention?”

This is a powerful, gamer-changer sentence. Rather than blaming, you are stating the undeniable truth (“when ________ happened, I felt this________”). And you are getting the other person to talk. You learn more and you are in control. 


In arguments, people want to out-argue their opponent. It’s popular in Hollywood. And it’s mistake.

First, when we get into an argument our body fires off a blitzkrieg of physical reactions that make it hard to listen and think. Adrenalin, cortisol, and norepinephrine jack us up to be: alert, pumped up, triggered, and kind of dumb. Lots of talk is nice in a school debate, but it heat of an argument it come across as excuses, blaming, dodging, judgment, and just plain bad news. The old line in sales “The person who talks the most loses” holds true in arguments.

Also, our brain processes words faster than our mouth – some research says the brain can handle words at 400-600 words per minute, while the mouth plods along at 140-160 wpm (Ronald Carver, The Causes of High and Low Reading Achievement). That means you have an advantage if you get them talking. The best way, of course, is with open-ended questions.

image_keyYou can learn more about stick-handling your way out of sticky conversations with my post “Before you put your foot in your mouth count to three” 


Of course, anytime you are dealing with humans, results aren’t so predictable. Regardless, clear communication and straight talk works better, saves you time, and reduces confusion. That much I know.

Here’s my straight talk:

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Be your best,