how to talk so your boss will listen

Have you ever left a meeting with your boss feeling like she didn’t listen well enough or didn’t understand what you needed? Or maybe you don’t even bother to approach your boss because you don’t think she’ll see things your way. While there certainly are plenty of bad or unresponsive managers out there, often you can change the results you get by changing your approach.

Here are seven keys for talking to your boss – and maximizing your chances of really being heard.

Give the upshot, then fill in details if needed. Your manager is probably busy – and even if she’s not, she probably doesn’t want to spend 10 minutes hearing tons of background before you get to the point. And she certainly doesn’t want to listen to that 10 minutes while wondering what this is all leading up to. So start with the upshot, and then fill in more details if they’re needed and wanted. By starting with the point, your manager will be better able to process the details – which means you’ll get a more useful answer and, significantly, your manager won’t dread a drawn-out conversation she doesn’t have time for when you pop your head into her office. Similarly…

Clearly state what you need. Are you just giving your boss a heads-up of something she should be aware of? Or asking for approval for something? Or seeking input? Clearly state what outcome you’re hoping for, so that she knows precisely what you’re looking for from her.

Pay attention to your boss’s communication preferences. You might prefer writing lengthy reports, but if your boss prefers a one-page bulleted list or an in-person chat, your preferences will have to make way for hers – at least if you want to increase your chances of a good outcome. It’s important to pay attention to how your boss prefers to communicate and adapt accordingly. If you learn that she’s always harried on Monday mornings and rarely checks her email, or that she rarely has much time to talk unless you schedule a meeting, you can pick the approach most likely to get what you need from her.

Be attuned to how much information your boss wants. Some bosses want to hear all the background and every option you considered and why. Other bosses just want to hear the basics, and have little patience for the supporting details. And sometimes it varies depending on the context – your boss may not have any interest in hearing about all the options you considered for the new copier, but might care very much about what process you took before recommending a new product line.

Stay calm and keep your emotions in check. Even when you’re frustrated or angry, you’ll generally get a better result from your manager if you can remain calm. If your manager can count on you to be a rational, objective thought partner, you’ll have far more credibility about the very thing you feel so strongly about. And speaking of credibility …

Disclose your biases. Most managers can tell when you’re not playing it straight with them or are pushing an agenda. But if you’re vigilant about putting all the facts on the table when you’re talking through an issue, and even acknowledged your own biases, you’ll have real credibility. For instance, if you have difficult, irritating coworker who always makes suggestions that create more work for you, it might be easy to dismiss his input as being bad or useless, because you’re annoyed. But if you assess his ideas honestly and acknowledging if they’re good, despite your aggravation, you’ll demonstrate that your priority is to be honest and objective, not to advance your own interest. As a result, you’ll find that your opinion will be taken more seriously – and any objections you do raise are more likely be accepted.

Think about the big picture. If your manager is any good at her job, she’s always thinking about the big picture. For instance, you might only be thinking about how your request to work from home on Fridays would affect you, but your boss needs to think about how it might impact the entire team. If you approach things from that perspective too, you’ll be able to preemptively think of solutions to concerns she’s likely to have (and thus head them off), as well as figure out the framing that will most resonate with her. And by speaking directly to the things she cares about, you’ll show that you “get it” – which will make you more likely to get what you need.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    I cannot voice my support for the first and last items on that list loudly enough. (Not that all of them aren’t true, but those are the ones that resonate the most with me personally.) As a boss, it drives me up a wall if one of my direct reports comes to me with, “Well, X happened, and then Y which leads to blah blah blah Z…” and I have to stop him and say, “Wakeen, what do you actually need me to do?”

    And: if I’m your manager, take it as a given that I know more about what’s going on outside of your purview than you do. It’s not that I don’t want you to use your vacation days, it’s just that I don’t want you to use them on the same dates that Jane asked me for first. And so on and so forth.

  2. The Other Dawn*

    “Stay calm and keep your emotions in check.”

    This is a big one. It’s hard to take someone’s complaints seriously when they’re so wound up they can’t make a clear business case as to why something should change.

    1. Jessa*

      Exactly, even if I’m a face to face kind of person, if your emotions are very involved, you might want to put this in an email if you cannot keep yourself calm about it. Personally I’m the sort that if it’s long and drawn out it’s easier for me to read it anyway. But even with a drop in and talk boss, it might be worth emailing or writing it down if only to get the emotion OUT of the situation. You can still follow up in person. Or even just write it out, print it out and take it with you as bullet points, letting the writing help you calm down about it and put your thoughts out rationally.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        Yes, writing it in an email is a great way to convey the issue in a calm and rational manner, even if the writer is anything BUT calm and rational. I actually do this with my boss when there’s something I want to talk about, but don’t want to risk tearing up. I also do it because I am much better at getting my point across when I write it out. I suck when I have to talk about something complicated in person. I ramble, I digress, you name it. Much easier to write it down and spare the poor boss all the stuff he doesn’t need to hear or doesn’t care about. I know that, as a manager, that’s something I need to work on though.

    2. Anonymous*

      Staying calm is true for when your boss belittles you too when you are being as professional as possible. My boss always makes jokes about me, which basically takes the wind out of any valid argument I may have. I could discuss how a new employee isn’t up to par with valid examples and he will turn it around on me and say ‘well you were no picnic either when you first started’. You can’t argue against something that #1 isn’t true and #2 a boss that insists all his BS is fact even you are the one with the examples.

  3. COT*

    “Disclose your biases” is such great advice. It’s really helpful for me if I can think those biases through before I even go to my boss with a complaint. Am I really unhappy with Wakeen’s teamwork on this project, or am I just annoyed because I didn’t want to be on a project with him in the first place? Is Jane actually being difficult to work with, or do we just have a personality clash?

    Answering those questions for myself makes it easier for me to know what I need from my boss. Sometimes I need her intervention because there’s a legitimate problem and I can make a good case for it. Sometimes I just need to suck it up and not complain because there’s not a real problem. Sometimes I don’t actually need advice on the project, but on how to work more effectively with a particular person, and knowing that helps me ask for what I want and avoid sounding whiny.

  4. anonymous*

    What do you do if the boss literally will not shut up for half a second to allow you to speak? Everytime I try to talk to mine, she yammers on for 5 minutes straight, and when I try to interrupt, she continues talking as if I wasn’t there. This is on the phone; she’s in a different city than me. There are no lulls. She can honestly talk without taking a breath for several minutes.

    When I do eventually manage to get a word in, she interrupts me with a question and then barges on without even hearing my answer, sometimes answering herself, usually incorrectly.

    I try to keep things to email, but she constantly calls. I’m at my wit’s end.

    1. fposte*

      Then take her behavior as an indication of what she wants–she calls not to hear from you but to talk to you. You can email her to give her information and to follow up on the phone conversation based on what she said.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      Ick. I hate dealing with people like this. Since you say you email, but she constantly calls, it’s obvious her preference for communicating is via phone (which makes NO sense to those of us who LOVE email and don’t like the demanding nature of the phone). I don’t think there’s a way around that without really annoying her.

    3. Briggs*

      What would happen if you followed along with those conversations with an email window open, and typed your responses to the questions as they come up, then send the email?

      You could open the email with something like “hey, just following up that conversation with a written summary so we can make sure we’re both on the same page”.

      1. anonymous*

        That might work. I think she just likes to hear herself talk. The biggest problem is when we get into a weird loop, where she calls asking me to clarify something, but doesn’t let me clarify, so I email with the actual clarification, and she calls because she still doesn’t understand what I just clarified.

        It’s ridiculous. I actually like her, other than this one really annoying habit.

        1. Moving On*

          As someone who’s reached middle age and has done nothing but study and keep my skills up only to see most of my work go to pay for middle managers (and higher ups), I will tell you what I would do. I would decide whether I felt appreciated enough and whether there was going to be any long-term payoff for dealing with someone who sounds like a complete narcissist ie typical manager. If not, I would leave. Life is too short. Most of us will never be invited into the old boys’ club (or new gay manager club as is more and more the case, now) so don’t waste your time working for them if they don’t appreciate it.

          On a more practical level, I would hang up the phone in the middle of one of her diatribes, wait 30 seconds and then call back to say that the call must have dropped. I would do this a few times just to take some power back in the relationship. You aren’t a slave. Don’t let some jerk treat you like one. A boss doesn’t own you though most think they do.

    4. CathVWXYNot?*

      Could you maybe suggest trying Skype instead of a regular phone call? Perhaps being able to actually see you will give her some non-verbal cues that you’re trying to say something

      1. anonymous*

        She’s not technologically savvy. She will not spend the time trying to set something like that up when a “quick phone call will do”. HA.

    5. Pussyfooter*

      Maybe an email in which you ask her for guidance? Something like:
      “I’ve noticed sometimes you need to call multiple times to get a question answered, but I wind up focusing on your concerns during the call instead of getting the question answered. How can I better speak up for myself when we’re trying to clarify an issue? Should I go ahead and interrupt you? What’s the best way to jump in?”
      (Even if she doesn’t want you to change, this might get her to notice that she’s monopolizing the conversation.)

  5. Anonymous*

    I do want to say you can go to far with the first one, make sure your boss knows generally what you are talking about or you’ll just end up repeating yourself. Just because you are spending 90% of your time on one project doesn’t mean your boss is, or even if they are that that is what they were doing when you started talking. Make sure you are on the same page so you don’t end up with wild misunderstandings.
    …I need to see if we can get Director to light a fire so I can get turned on….Makes perfect sense in context. Not so much out of context.
    (I’m trying really hard to make sure I give my boss the 10 seconds to get on the train with what I’m talking about before I get right down to it. It is surprisingly difficult to not just jumping to the point.)

    1. tcookson*

      I think a conversation needs a little preamble before getting directly to the point (not a lot of preamble, mind you, but just enough to cue the person in to what you’re about to talk about). Like maybe do #2 (let the boss know what you’re looking for from them) and then do #1 (get to the point; with, perhaps, a one- or two-sentence lead-in just to make sure the boss knows what you’re referring to).

      I have one co-worker who jumps straight in to the point without any preamble whatsoever (sometimes without even a greeting), and it always seems so abrupt, and many times I don’t even know what she’s talking about, so I have to get her to back up and give me some context.

      I have another co-worker who says, regarding too much up-front info before getting to the point, “Give me the baby, not the labor pains.” Which I can understand, but I prefer more, “Tell me that you’re about to give me a baby, give me some brief context as to why I’m the best person to receive the baby, and THEN give me the baby.”

      1. tcookson*

        . . . and, re-reading that just now, it sounds as if I’m asking someone to impregnate me. Gah!

      2. The Other Dawn*

        “I have one co-worker who jumps straight in to the point without any preamble whatsoever (sometimes without even a greeting), and it always seems so abrupt, and many times I don’t even know what she’s talking about, so I have to get her to back up and give me some context.”

        Hmmmm…do we work at the same place? I have a co-worker that does this also. It’s so jarring and annoying. She just walks in and starts right away. And she uses pronouns all.the.time. rather than names so I always have to ask, “Who is ‘she’?” or “Who is ‘they’?” Drives me batty.

        1. tcookson*

          And she uses pronouns all.the.time. rather than names so I always have to ask, “Who is ‘she’?” or “Who is ‘they’?”

          Same with my co-worker! I’m always having to ask, “Who’s they?”

  6. Pussyfooter*

    Can anyone recommend a book, blog, etc. on making oneself succinct (especially, how to mentally arrange one’s thoughts)?

  7. Jaide*

    How do I talk to a boss who just outright dislikes me? He refuses to speak to me, unless it’s to do my yearly review. I send emails and get no answers. I stop by his office with an issue like “policy says we’re to do ABC. However the last email sent out by G Team states we are to LMNOP, your last email states that we should xyz, I’m just looking for clarification of how you want this handled?” his answer was “do whatever you want, I really don’t care”. He is rarely here, as his wife works in another department so he spends plenty of time in her department. When he’s here his door is shut and he is unavailable. When I attempt to talk to him about the schedule his answer is “we’re 10 employees short for our area, there’s nothing I can do, you’re just going to have to deal with it or quit” I understand he’s under pressure to, but I also have a home life. He’s not the one stuck here for an additional 8 hours, because we are short staffed. Yearly reviews were suppose to be handed out in January, did not recieve mine until July, my portion is due back by the end of August, giving me 60 days max to complete 10 pages of things. Requested an extension and was told I’d be off without pay if it wasn’t completed on time.

    I have really tried with my boss. I’m a generally very happy person and I enjoy having fun (yes I’m still proffessional, but I do believe it’s ok to smile and laugh while at work) I have been here for 7 years, he’s been here 1. I’m at a loss of what to do.

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