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The Art of Being Subtle

The Art of Being Subtle

Sharlyn Lauby | HR Bartender

August 03, 2010

Being subtle is the act of conveying something in a skillful or clever way versus in a direct manner. It’s truly an art form and one that is not easily mastered.

The biggest reason being subtle is a challenge is because you have to know when you’ve succeeded.

Let’s say you convey a message and feel you’ve been able to accomplish the act of being subtle. If the other person doesn’t get it, your subtlety was lost. It doesn’t matter if you thought it worked. It’s how the other person received it.

Here’s a workplace example: Employee arrives 10 minutes late to work. When they show up, you walk up to the employee’s desk and say good morning. And start talking to them about an issue that happened at the start of the shift. You feel you’re making the point that you know the employee was late, yada yada. You get the picture.

As far as the employee is concerned…all you did was tell them something that happened 10 minutes ago. That’s it.

I’ve had this sort of thing happen many times in my career. I never wanted to deliver unpleasant messages. So in an effort to be a cool manager, I would resort to being subtle — delivering the message in a softer way. Then, the other person doesn’t get it. And, I have to go back for a second conversation. Of course, in a more direct way. Which was what I was trying to avoid in the first place.

If you’re faced with delivering a message, ask yourself a few questions:

Is this a message that could be easily misinterpreted? If the answer is yes, you might want to consider not using subtlety. Even if it’s an unpleasant conversation, it’s important to come across with a clear and concise message here.

If you choose the subtlety route, what happens if the person doesn’t get it? There are messages so minor, if a person didn’t get the drift…oh well. But if the topic is important, don’t leave it to subtlety.

Regardless of whether you use subtlety or not, always make sure the other person understood the message. And “ya get what I mean?” is not sufficient. Someone could still say, “oh yeah, I get it” and wander off completely clueless.

Being subtle can have advantages for both the giver and receiver, but there are some message best conveyed in a direct way.

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