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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Ways to Get What You Need From Terrible Communicators

Do you have a manager who sends cryptic, one-sentence emails that send you into a panic?

Or a co-worker whose long, rambling missives leave you wondering what, exactly, you should do next?

It can be difficult to do your best work when your colleagues are not particularly “gifted” in the communication department.

But until all bosses are required to go through mandatory training or we can find some way to enforce that people think before they speak, here are a few tips to help get the lines of communication flowing more smoothly.

Tip #1. Ask for Clarification

Often, at work, people feel uneasy about requesting clarification. No one wants to feel dense, or like they need everything explained twice!

But think of it this way: Taking 10 seconds to get clarity on a particular request could potentially save you 10 hours of confusion and unnecessary work. It’s always worth it!


Thank you for _.

To clarify, would you like me to _ or _?

For example:

Thank you for sending me your rough notes on the spring marketing campaign.

To clarify, would you like me to provide general feedback or to whip these notes into a formal plan, with to-do dates for each item, and then send the plan to the entire team?

Tip #2. Use the 3 Magic Words: “Is That Accurate?”

Sometimes, even after requesting clarification, your colleague might still respond in a way that makes zero sense. (Argh!)

If that’s the case, these three magic words can help clear up the confusion.


It sounds like you are asking me to _. Is that accurate?

For example:

It sounds like you are asking me to book your flight to the conference in NYC, book your flight to the other conference in Boston, and then book your hotel for NYC but not for Boston. Is that accurate?

Hopefully, by asking this question, your colleague will realize that his or her messages aren’t quite clear. Or perhaps even be grateful for your precision! It’s always comforting to hear your own instructions echoed back (especially when your brain is foggy and you’re not quite sure what you’re even saying—which could be the case for your colleague!)

Tip #3. Give Constructive Feedback

If confusing communication is a persistent problem, don’t be afraid to have a direct conversation about it. Say that you have a few ideas on how to work better together, then outline your communication preferences clearly, simply, and in detail.


Hey! I’ve got a few ideas on how to make our communication even better—and get projects done even more effectively. May I share my thoughts?


We seem to have fewer misunderstandings when we pick up the phone and talk or meet face-to-face. Could we communicate in that format, rather than via email—unless it’s something really quick?


When you give me an instruction, I’d like to repeat back to you what I’m understanding, so that you can clarify any confusion right then—and we’ll be all set!

Frame your ideas as a “great new plan!” for both of you to try, rather than a criticism of your colleague.

Once you’ve done this, don’t be afraid to revisit the conversation from time to time if you find that the lines of communication are still twisted and tangled into knots. You deserve to work in an environment where clear communication is the norm, not the exception to the rule. And if it’s always framed in a way of how to help the both of you work better? It’ll likely be well-received.

As a final note, remember that you can lead by example, communicating as clearly as you possibly can, every day.

Maybe your colleagues will follow your lead, or maybe they won’t, but either way, you can take pride in knowing that you’re delivering your absolute best.

Photo of man with tape on mouth courtesy of Shutterstock.