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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

5 Ways to Handle Being Completely Lost at Work (That Won't Make You Look Bad)

If you’ve ever watched an episode of Charlie Brown, you probably remember his interactions with his teacher in class. No matter what she’s saying, it always sounded like a distorted megaphone to Charlie.

Sometimes, the office can feel just like those Charlie Brown scenes. Your boss or co-worker is giving you instructions or explaining an important project, and all you hear is, “Womp womp womp womp womp.”

If you’re having a moment where you have absolutely no idea what’s happening at work, don’t just give up. Instead, check out these five strategies to get yourself out of the metaphorical hole.

1. Fake it ’Til You Make It

The good old “fake it ’til you make it” strategy is one of the oldest in the book, and pretending you know what’s happening can definitely come in handy, especially if you’re in front of important people and don’t want to sound like you don’t have a grasp on what’s going on.

The technique can be particularly useful if you’re in a situation where you’re being given a great deal of information and know you’ll need time afterward to digest everything that’s being thrown at you. In this case, it’s better to smile, nod, write down the information (including anything you don’t understand), say “I’m going to process this, and I’ll let you know if I have any questions,” and catch up with your boss later.

2. Just Say “I Don’t Know”

That said, you should never be afraid of simply saying, “I don’t know” if you’re truly confused, especially if you’re expected to understand everything happening in the moment. Just make sure you’re specific about what you need clarification on. For example, instead of blurting out, “This PowerPoint makes no sense,” ask, “I was with you until the second part of this slide—could you repeat what you said about our analytics?” This approach makes it easier for the person explaining to figure out where you got lost and how to get you up to speed.

A pro tip: In my experience, many things can be worked out in your head if you sit on them for a minute or two. Taking a little time to process and troubleshoot usually allows you to figure things out before you call in the reserves. (You don’t want to be the person always raising his or her hand to have something explained.)

3. Find a Buddy

Never underestimate the power of finding someone in the office to lean on when you need something explained to you. As long as you’re not poking that person all day long, asking for help, he or she will generally be happy to give you a hand.

A few rules of thumb here: Limit yourself to asking about two things you don’t understand per day. Also, this seems obvious (but so many people do it anyway): Avoid approaching people when they’re busy. Instead, send over an email with your questions. Or, at the very least, wait until he or she’s hung up the phone or finished chewing before going over.

4. Prioritize Questions That Need Answering

There’s nothing more overwhelming than feeling like you have not one, but a million, questions you want answered. Where do you even start?

The easiest trick is to adopt the Eisenhower Method, which involves asking yourself two important questions: Is this urgent, and is this important? Obviously, you’ll want to ask questions about things that are urgent and important before anything else.

For example, if you’ve just started a new job and have a plethora of questions, it’s better to ask about things pertaining to your first project deadlines than it is to inquire about the best way to collaborate with other teams.

5. Schedule Regular Check-in Times

If you’ve noticed that your confusion is due to communication issues with co-workers or your manager, and not necessarily your work itself, it may be a good idea to schedule regular check-ins to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Yes, despite the incredible range of team management tools out there, it’s not uncommon for co-workers to get out of sync.

Not sure how to bring this up with your boss or co-workers? Find several specific examples of where there was a break in communication, and illustrate how it could easily be fixed with a quick five-minute check-in once a day or longer weekly catch-up. (Here’s a great read on how this can work.)

Everyone struggles to figure out what’s going on from time to time, so that’s never something you should feel ashamed to admit. Armed with the right strategy, you’ll be walking the walk and talking the talk in no time.

Photo of stressed woman courtesy of Shutterstock.