Susan G. Bednar, LCSW

Speaking Indirectly

Speaking indirectly means communicating in a style in which much is said through innuendo or vague suggestion rather than being stated explicitly.  Indirect comments may be used to check someone’s reaction to a potentially touchy subject, to soften a request or criticism that might otherwise be seen as too demanding or harsh, or to drop a hint without having to bring up a subject directly.  They may also be used to deceive or manipulate.  Have you ever been driven to distraction by someone who couldn’t seem to say what they mean?  Have you been angry because another seemed only to hint at what they wanted rather than saying it directly?  Have you decided you distrusted someone because their speech was so vague and indirect that it lead you to conclude they must be lying?  If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you have direct experience with someone speaking indirectly.

How directly or indirectly people communicate is to a certain extent determined by culture and context, with cultures stressing individualism tending to foster more direct communication and more communal cultures fostering more indirect communication.  Contexts in which it may not be safe to say directly what one feels, or in which saying it directly is likely to hurt someone unnecessarily may also modify speaking styles in the direction of a more indirect style.   Communication style is also personal to a certain extent, so there may be variation within a culture or context based on individual preferences and habits.  Individuals who favor clear, direct communication may see indirect communicators as being passive, evasive, manipulative or dishonest, while those who favor more indirect communication may see the direct communicator as being aggressive, blunt, insensitive or rude.

If we look at direct vs. indirect communication as being points along a continuum in which people fall in various places based on their culture, their context, and their personal preferences, then probably most places along the continuum can be seen as “normal.”  There isn’t a clear right or wrong when it comes to communication styles.  Each has its benefits and drawbacks.  Direct communication minimizes the likelihood of misunderstanding however there may be more risk of offending others.  Indirect communication may seem less risky when introducing a touchy topic or when the speaker is not sure how the other will react to a comment, but misunderstanding is more likely to occur, and misunderstanding may ultimately lead to unnecessary conflict and stress.

That being said, therapists who do relationship work frequently spend a great deal of time teaching their clients to communicate more directly.  That’s because so many relationship problems arise from misunderstanding, and actually, quite a few personal and relational problems arise from being unable to speak clearly and ask for what is wanted or needed in a relationship.  Clear communication is critical to a healthy relationship.  There is also a potentially more sinister side to this issue.  Indirect types of communication are frequently used by abusive individuals in order to manipulate their victim or their target.  Hints, innuendo, vague statements that can be interpreted in multiple ways, and implied criticism or blame are the tools of the con artist, the self-centered narcissist, the abusive partner, and a host of other unseemly individuals that most of us would rather avoid.  These tactics are also used in sexual harassment, veiled threats, and bribery. So when they show up in a therapist’s office, they serve as red flags, alerting the professional to the possibility that there is a serious problem lurking that needs to be exposed.

When it comes right down to it, even touchy topics and critical statements can be handled with sensitivity while still speaking clearly and directly.  Speaking indirectly is not necessary in order to communicate effectively.  While indirect communication may be normal and innocuous most of the time, it may also signal less savory intentions.  For that reason, as well as because indirectness causes so much unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding, why not err on the side of speaking more directly?


Important Note:  This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care.  Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different.  If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.