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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Get Your Colleagues to Communicate More Clearly With You

co-workers talking about a project

Leslie, the executive director of a nonprofit, wanted to redo the brochure for the organization’s program helping at-risk youth stay in school, and she put Emma, the office manager, in charge.

Emma spent hours updating images, colors, and fonts. She was proud of her bolder, brighter reinvention, excited to show it to her boss.

When she did, however, there was clearly a problem. “Oh,” Leslie observed of the new brochure, “It looks great. But why is the copy still the same?”

Stunned, Emma couldn’t believe her ears. She’d never thought about revising the copy. And Leslie had never suggested it. How could two people talking about one simple thing have such different interpretations?

Leslie and Emma experienced the classic issue immortalized by George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

There are going to be people in the workplace who, like Leslie, who aren’t very good at getting their ideas across to you. And when they don’t, it can create obstacles. It can send you spinning off into a miscommunication limbo. Wasted time, dreaded rework, and total misfires can mount up when your colleague, or boss, doesn’t communicate what they want efficiently or effectively.

You can wish all day for these folks to communicate more clearly. But that probably shouldn’t be your go-to strategy. Instead of wishing, try the following three techniques to get clearer, more effective communication from others.

1. When You’re Taking on an Assignment

Emma thought she was hearing what her boss wanted. After all, they were standing in the same room talking to one another. But in reality, Leslie’s instructions to “redesign the brochure” were vague and incomplete.

A great strategy for getting others to be more concise and specific is to ask questions that provide clarity.

Here’s how that would've sounded from Emma: “Leslie, when you say ‘redesign the brochure’ can you tell more about me what you mean by that and what your expectations are?”

Emma would’ve found out pretty quickly that she and her boss had unique ideas about the final product. Then, she could have drilled down further with more questions, inquiring about everything from the graphics and color scheme to the deadline for a first draft.

Questions are your secret weapon in the workplace. When in doubt, ask others to clarify their expectations. Ask until you’re sure you understand. You’ll be amazed at how it streamlines most everything.

2. When You’re in a Meeting

Have you ever been in a meeting that gave meetings a bad name? I’ve seen managers who ramble on seemingly without a clear purpose or desired outcome. On top of that, the leader sounds like he is processing his thoughts aloud, more than he is facilitating a group conversation. No one’s sure what to take seriously as an idea, and what to ignore. And everyone is thinking about the pile of work on their desks. After a while, the team forgets what the point of even talking was and mentally vacates the premises, resigned to checking email on their phones.

Being in the thick of a meeting fail can be a difficult place to ask a boss or colleague to be more effective in his speech. But you can, and you don’t have to be mean about it. Simply interrupt when there’s a pause and ask for clarification.

“Bob, I’m noticing some furrowed brows in the room. It seems like some of us are not following you on this topic. Can you walk us back a few steps and review the key points at a high level? I want to be sure we know what you need from us.”

It’s likely you’ll get nods of agreement and others jumping in to express confusion. You'll get the info you need, and so will your colleagues, who'll no doubt thank you later for speaking up.

3. When You’re Working on Email

Most communication in the workplace, not surprisingly, happens over email. So when you get a long, rambling, unfocused tome from Angela, your project buddy, you want to cry.

It’ll take you 30 minutes just to wade through the paragraphs, figure out what she’s saying, determine if you need to do something, and then figure out how to respond. One glance and you remember why you hate opening this woman’s email. You could bang your head against the wall in frustration.

Instead, practice asking for what you need, in a kind, non-confrontational way. Ask Angela if she would be open to reframing her emails so that you can respond more quickly. And remember, if you’re going to ask someone to do something differently, tell her why it’s good for her, too.

“Hey Angela, I notice that often your emails are long and detailed. It’s great that you provide so much information, but when I’m looking quickly, I can’t always decipher exactly what you need from me and when—and I hate missing deadlines or misinterpreting instructions. Would you be able to put the main point at the top so that I can respond to you more quickly, or even make the subject more detailed? For example, ‘Action Needed by Friday at 9 AM | ACME Project’ will remind me to put it in my schedule right away."

You’re likely to start receiving a higher quality email from Angela immediately, and you'll have done your colleague a favor by helping her to communicate more professionally. Pat yourself on the back for that one.

It would be great if everyone communicated in a way that left nothing to the imagination. The reality is we communicate in complex, noisy workplaces fraught with distraction and stress. When important conversations are happening it’s good practice to help those around you communicate concisely so that you extract the information you need from them. It might be a bit uncomfortable when you first try, but in the long run, you will get better and more comfortable with doing so. Bonus, it will save you hours of stress and misdirected energy in the process.