Just smile and nod, smile and nod—and then, once your boss walks away, you can ask your co-workers if anyone else understood a word she said.
Sound familiar? When your boss isn’t a good communicator, your job tends to be lot harder than it should be. Whether your manager is overly vague or so verbose that you can’t quite separate the necessary information from the trivial, you’re often left in the lurch. So, how do you get your job done when you’re not getting the information you need?
Don’t give up hope. Try these three strategies that will not only help you get what you need now—but that can actually help improve your manager’s communication in the long run.
1. Hone in on His or Her Communication Style—and Challenge It
If your boss is stuck in one particular communication style—one that’s obviously not working—it may be time to push back a little. Now, I’m not recommending insubordination or making your boss feel attacked in any way, but if you’re not getting what you need to be successful, respectfully counter your manager with a different method of communication.
For example, if your boss prefers to communicate via email, and those emails are filled with short, vague bullet points, try initiating a change of pace. Instead of responding electronically (which can just fuel the miscommunication fire), swing by her office to reference the message. Point out specific phrases that weren’t communicated effectively and ask for clarification: “You mentioned that your priority for me is to ‘increase sales,’ but how much of an increase are you looking for, and in what timeframe?”
Or, if you boss tends to fire off complex, detailed information when she casually stops by your cubicle to chat, follow the conversation up with an email. Mention that you want to make sure that you have all the details you need, and ask for a short-and-sweet version of your talk, boiled down to the high-level information.
Encouraging your boss to embrace different communication styles will show her what works and what doesn’t—when she realizes that you stop by her office every time she sends an email, she’ll probably get the picture that those emails aren’t as effective as she thinks they are.
2. Repeat Instructions Back
A former boss of mine once asked me to summarize and repeat whatever she said back to her. It sounds strange, but she wanted to make sure I completely understood what she said, whether she was communicating instructions, goals, or company information.
It became a running joke at first: When she popped her head into my office to say, “Hey, I’m leaving for the night,” I’d reply, “So what you’re saying is, you’re going home?” When she’d ask if I wanted to go to lunch, I’d say, “So what you’re saying is, you’re going to buy me food?”—and so on.
But sarcasm aside, this technique can actually be a useful tool when executed in the right way. When your boss says something vague (“Can you get me those numbers soon?”), counter the statement by repeating what you think he means (“Sure, I can get you the call-handling statistics from this week by the end of the day.”). It may seem silly, but it will give your boss the opportunity to correct and clarify his statement, if needed (“Oh, I actually meant the numbers for next month’s advertising budget—and I just need them by the end of the week”). With one simple—albeit, repetitive—statement, you’ve just clarified the meaning of your boss’s muddled instructions.
And in the long run, this can help your boss may realize that he’s not as good a communicator as he thought—if he’s constantly having to clarify or repeat instructions, sooner or later he’ll just start explaining them more clearly in the first place.
3. Get His or Her Undivided Attention
You may think it’s the boss’s job to call meetings, but when you’re unclear about something your manager said or want to clarify goals or expectations, you should feel comfortable requesting some one-on-one time with her. In the everyday hustle and bustle of the office, your boss may toss out vague instructions or information—so if you need clarification, you’re going to need to separate yourself from everything else going on around you.
So, send your manager an Outlook or Google Calendar invitation for a short, 15-minute meeting. In the body of the message, make sure to include the issues you’d like to discuss, so your manager has some context and the ability to prepare. Then, come to the meeting with several specific points you’d like to cover or questions you’d like answered.
With a specific chunk of time set aside, the office door closed, and all attention on you, you’ll be able to clarify your needs and concerns—and she’ll be able to focus solely on you without distraction.
Depending on the size of your team, you may also be able to request that your meeting turn into a recurring event. For example, I have a weekly one-on-one meeting with my boss, which has given me the regular opportunity to bring any questions, concerns, and ideas to him—and this open forum has been great for making sure we’re always on the same page.
It’ll take a little extra effort on your part, but if you commit to helping your boss communicate better—she will. And the more often you help her out, the better chance that she’ll make it a lasting change.