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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Innocent Questions You Can Ask to Clear Up Confusing Directions

Your boss is great at a lot of things. But, providing you with directions on how exactly to do something? Not so much.

Maybe he’s so vague with his instructions that you end each meeting feeling completely unclear about what to do next. Perhaps he swings to the other side of that pendulum and provides such painstaking detail, you’re confident it’d be better (not to mention faster) if he just did the entire thing himself. Or, maybe he’s crammed so much jargon and so many acronyms into his email, you feel like you need a decoder to understand it.

Whatever your specific circumstances, you’re convinced you’d have an easier time assembling IKEA furniture blindfolded than you’d have deciphering what you’re supposed to do next.

So, what do you do? How can you gain some much-needed clarity without seeming pushy—or worse—uninformed? Well, these four questions are a great place to start.

1. What Is the End Goal of This Task?

Sometimes, it’s easy for your manager to get too far into the weeds when delegating. She gets so wrapped up in the minutiae details that soon you’re all missing the forest for the trees—meaning you end up with absolutely zero idea of what she’s actually requesting.

A question like this can encourage her to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. When she tunes out all of those less important particulars, what exactly is she aiming to accomplish?

Maybe she needs you to compile a spreadsheet with the data she requires for an approaching meeting. Or, perhaps she wants you to put together an outline about your company’s upcoming event that she can use to get sponsorships.

In any case, use this question to get her to focus on the meat and potatoes of her request, and you’ll be able to take some steps forward—with the confidence that you both have the same end goal in mind.

2. Does This Sound Good to You?

If your boss provides you with sweeping generalities and incredibly vague directions, that’s usually an indication that he has no clue where to get started himself—which is why the task is being shifted onto your plate.

So, in these cases, asking your supervisor, “Uhh…how do I do this?” probably won’t get you too far.

Instead, it’s a good idea to sit down and examine all of the information and instructions you have so far in order to form your own rough plan of attack.

Then, once you have a handle on how you’d approach this particular project, run your proposed next steps past your boss and end with, “Does this sound good to you?” to confirm that you have the correct understanding of what exactly you should be doing.

Chances are, you’ll be met with a quick and relieved, “Yep, sounds great!” from your boss—and you can get rolling with those action steps you formulated.

3. Do You Have an Example?

No matter how much prompting and prodding you do, some people will just never be skilled at providing you with directions. That’s when it’s particularly helpful to ask for an example you can reference.

Does your boss have a report already started or one that she found elsewhere and would like to emulate? Or, does she have a version that was completed previously that you can improve and refine to meet her new expectations?

Sometimes it’s easier to show how we want things done, rather than explain it. So, ask your supervisor if she has a sample she could share with you. That can help to clear up a great deal—without you needing to ask endless questions.

4. Can You Explain Further?

You’re out of clever questions, and you’re still a little fuzzy on what exactly your boss needs from you. While you might be tempted to charge ahead with your best guess, it’s always better to swallow your pride and flat out ask your manager for some added clarification.

Yes, admitting that you don’t understand something can be a little humiliating at times. However, it’s better than investing your time, effort, and energy into something that’s completely off track.

When in doubt, own up to the fact that you’re confused and then request some further explanation—ensuring that you also ask any necessary follow-up questions to allow you to walk away from that conversation feeling self-assured. You’d rather not come back later with even more misunderstandings.

Nobody likes feeling cross-eyed and confused after their boss dishes out some directions. And, needing to ask for further clarification is usually enough to make you feel like a fumbling idiot who somehow miraculously landed in your position.

However, these four questions should help you get the detail you need, without seeming totally misguided or out of the loop. And, remember—as embarrassing as it might seem—never hesitate to just ask. After all, it’s far better than the alternative.

Photo of meeting courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.