Have you ever had a supervisor whose communication skills made things… difficult?
Alas, I have, and I can tell you that it’s no dang picnic. Fortunately, there are some things that you can do to make a challenging relationship like that a little easier. Unfortunately, that does usually mean more work for you, but I can tell you from my own experience that it really is worthwhile.
Before I get too into the weeds on this, let me start by acknowledging that there are a lot of reasons a person might be harder to communicate with. In some industries, managers are so overwhelmed that they can’t remember who they’ve asked to do what. Some people speak in ways that others find confusing. And sometimes even supervisors struggle with social anxiety, so your boss isn’t necessarily a bad person because of these challenges. Developing your own strategies might even make a bad situation into a bearable one. Read on!
The first thing you can do is this: every time you have an interaction with poor communicator is to follow up every meeting, formal or informal, with an email. I know, this feels like a lot, but it will really help you get clear. In the email, outline your understanding of the conversation you had, any deadlines, and any questions you need answered: “Thanks again for meeting with me this morning, Jim. I understood you to say that the first phase of the project with Sue’s Goods was due on October 3, and my part was to ensure that we have some high-resolution images of some of the products. I will begin work on that this week. As I mentioned to you, I need to know the best format for those images with our new system, so if you can let me know that ASAP, I’d really appreciate that. Also, if I’ve misunderstood my role here, please let me know.” This follow-up both demonstrates your understanding of the upcoming project and protects you in the event that your boss is also a flaky person who is likely to forget what you’re doing. In the most difficult situations, I also recommend that you copy someone else in the organization when you send these messages. In my case, I had a very, very toxic boss, which the director knew and was trying to manage, so I had to BCC the director these emails to protect myself. (I sincerely hope your situation isn’t that bad! It was not an easy way to live.)
In the absence of a reply, you can safely assume that your understanding is correct, and proceed according to your plans. If it isn’t quite what your supervisor had in mind, the format encourages that person to reply via email, which usually gives you clearer instructions and something you can look back over to make sure you’ve got it right.
Need more? I have another practical tip to share with you on Thursday, so check back then!