How to be both direct and truly nice? This is a conundrum for many of us. I am half Scandinavian and half Germanic, a classic Minnesotan. Fortunately I have lived in a few other places (including Africa and Guatemala) and have let other styles of communication rub off on me. Plus I am naturally expressive and can be very direct some of the time. I am not sure where my direct style came from…but the Vikings were from Norway and Sweden, and I don’t think they were overly nice or prone to indirectness. Here are five ideas to help you release your inner-Viking.

1. Say “yes” to your own interests–clearly yet gently.

I recall the moment I did something different as an overly-deferential Minnesotan. It was many years ago and I was at the corner of 34th and Dupont in South Minneapolis. There is a 4 way stop sign there. I was going north and two cars emerged one from the east and one from the west, we all stopped at the same time. One guy gestured “you first”, the lady also gestured “no, you first”…We could have spent a long time inviting each other to go first, I might still be there today, but instead I thought, “Wow, I have been doing this habitually my whole life, letting others go first. Being as polite and deferential as possible.” Now there is nothing wrong with letting others go first. In fact, it is biblical. And yet, it felt right to think “I am going first this time.” And I did so with a wave of thanks to both of them. It was new behavior for me and it felt so good.

2. Say “no” with grace

Here is a verbatim note I got from a colleague when I asked them to join me on LinkedIn.

“Hi Tom,

Warm greetings. I’m writing to thank you for your invitation to join LinkedIn. I hope you understand my gentle decline. I am semi-retired now and prefer not to get the extra emails that LinkedIn generates. If I was in full active professional mode, I’d join in a heartbeat. All is well here; I hope all is well with you and yours.”

Can’t you just feel their sensitivity? This is one of the most gracious and direct “no’s” I’ve ever received. What a gift! It came from a truly nice and strong Minnesotan. The part I heard most loudly, (or perhaps quietly) is “I hope you understand my gentle decline.” And then she states the reason and compliments me by adding that if things were different she’d join me “in a heartbeat”. Wow. Subtleties can make a huge difference, especially when saying “no.”

3. Tell the truth and tell it diplomatically.

Sometimes, by the time we who tend towards natural indirectness become more direct we have some pent up feelings. So we can come across too strongly. So tell the truth, early and often–especially when necessary and done with love–if you want a better chance of being heard. If someone asks if they talk too much and they do just gently tell them the truth with care in your tone of voice. “Yes, sometimes you do talk too much. And though I like listening to you and find you to be very bright, I would enjoy the chance to speak more when I’m with you.” Now if they ask if the outfit makes them look too fat you have even a bigger challenge. Phone a friend, or me, for help with that one.

4. Treat others with lower rank with the respect usually given to someone with higher rank.

My brother Dan, who works in construction, usually asks the person he meets on a job site, with true respect in his tone of voice: “Are you the boss here?” This is a safe and smart opening question. The person is often not the boss and is happy to point to the one who is. If the person is the boss it is safe because asking the boss who the boss is, in the construction world, is a faux pas. Treating others with genuine respect is always a good idea.

5. Be prepared to offend others.

I know this will strike some of you as a really bad idea. I do not mean go out and try to offend others. But as you become a more direct communicator there will be people who may take what you say the wrong way. They may react and feel “offended.” Fortunately, in an indirect culture like what we tend to have here in Minnesota, you may never ever hear them say they are offended. Unfortunately, you may hear it from others who hear it from them. It is useful to find out if you did something inappropriate or hurtful. Do you have a mess you need to clean up? It is also possible they simply got triggered by something you did or said and it is not at all about you. Just get ready to practice being willing to ask “Did I do something hurtful for which I can apologize?” and to detach emotionally from their reaction.

You can learn to be more direct and also still the completely nice person you are at your core. It is possible. It can be extra challenging when you work with people whose relatives come from countries other than Norway, Sweden and Germany, but the same basic principles apply. Please keep me posted as to your experiments with this and reach out for help whenever you need it. Helpers are all around us if we are open to them.