key phrases to use when you talk to your boss

If you’re like a lot of people, you might get anxious when you have to talk to your boss – or you might leave the conversation feeling unsure of what kind of impression you made. Or maybe you’ve just noticed that your relationship with your manager could be smoother. Whatever the case, the following seven phrases will help you get what you need from your boss, communicate better, and keep yourself in good standing.

1. “We can do X or Y. I propose Y because…” The idea here is that you’re not just dumping a problem on your boss and waiting for her to come up with a solution. Instead, you’re thinking through how to solve the problem and proposing a way forward. This makes your boss’s job easier, because she has something concrete to react to – and in many cases can just say “yes, that sounds great, go do that.” It also positions you as someone who proactively solves problems, and that’s a skill that’s nearly always going to be needed if you want to take on more responsibility or get promoted.

2. “I’m of course glad to do it the way you asked, but I want to flag that one possible problem is X.” If you think that something your manager is asking you to do is a bad idea, this framing can help you raise it without looking argumentative. You’re clearly saying that you’re perfectly happy to do what your boss has asked, but you’re also offering a perspective that she might not have considered and might find helpful.

3. “I realized that I’m not entirely sure what you meant when you said X earlier.” Sometimes your manager might say something that leaves you confused or even worried, but the conversation moved on before you had a chance to ask about it. That does not mean you are sentenced to leave with your uncertainty or worry forever, just because you missed your chance in the moment! It’s perfectly okay to ask about it later. In fact, most managers would strongly prefer that you do bring it up later, so that they have a chance to clarify whatever they meant.

4. “Can we talk about how I should prioritize?” I hear from a lot of people who are frustrated about their workloads but who haven’t asked for help in prioritizing. Instead, they assume they’re just supposed to get it all done quickly, and as a result they end up stressed out or letting things fall through the cracks. It’s important to realize that your manager may not realize how large your workload has become or that you have two big projects due on the same day or that other conflicts are getting in the way. Your manager is probably busy and has lots to juggle, and is relying on you to speak up if your workload has become unmanageable. If she’s decent at her job, she’ll be glad to give input on how you should prioritize – and even on what you might be able to push back or jettison altogether.

5. “Thanks for giving me that feedback – it’s really useful to hear.” Too often, people get upset or defensive when receiving critical feedback – and while that shouldn’t make managers hesitant to give feedback in the future, the reality is that it often does. Other people don’t have much of a reaction at all, leaving their managers stumped about whether they’re really processing the conversation. But if instead you’re cheerful and openly appreciative of the guidance, you’ll likely ensure that your boss gives you a steady stream of guidance that will help you get better and better at what you do. And you’ll probably be thought of us as exceptionally mature and easy to work with.

6. “Is there a way I could make it easier for you to give input?” If you have trouble getting the input from your boss that you need in order to move projects forward, try asking this question. You might find out that you’d get faster answers if you call rather than emailing, or if you grab your boss for two minutes in the hallway after the morning staff meeting, or even that she’ll spot your emails faster if you use a particular subject line structure, or all sorts of other possibilities.

7. “Can I repeat back my understanding of this assignment to make sure I’ve got it?” This is a particularly good question to ask if you’ve noticed that your boss sometimes doesn’t mention crucial details until you’re already halfway through an assignment (or worse, finished with it), or that you two don’t always leave conversations with the same understanding of what was agreed to. Giving a quick summary of what you’re taking away from the conversation may help her realize that she needs to share additional key details with you and will help you both spot places where you might not be on the same page.

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

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Collie*

    I do something like #7 fairly frequently. I’ve found my coworkers, who’ve been working together for many years while I joined about 2 1/2 years ago, have a communication style that doesn’t really match my own. While I take a lot of notes to try to mitigate that, when I feel like I might be missing something or that a decision had been changed mid-conversation and I didn’t catch it, I’ll say something like, “Okay, so just so I’m clear, you want X, and Y. Is that correct?” It’s really useful for me to do, but I often notice my supervisor seeming to be annoyed. I’m also not the best at reading people, though, so…

    1. Kathleen Adams*

      My supervisor, who I otherwise quite like, also seems to think she’s a much clearer communicator than she, in fact, is. I know she sometimes wonders why I need clarification on something that is quite clear to her, but I figure a minor annoyance now is much better than a major annoyance down the road.

    2. gsa*

      I had a VP, three tiers above me, that used to say, “Communication is the responsibility of the communicator.”

      So what I do is, give direction and ask for an explanation/interpretation of said direction. I will also, from time to time, go down one tier and ask, “what did your manager tell you to do here?” I might ask a pier, what do you think that means we should do.

      Who played “telephone” growing up. That game is a great example of how verbal communication can go awry…

  2. Bonky*

    Oh gosh, prioritising. I do wish some of the people I manage would ask me how they should prioritise more often; it’s not always obvious, even if I think it is, and it’s a lot less stress for everybody if we’re all thinking the same way!

    1. Clever Name*

      There’s nothing stopping you from proactively discussing priorities! Having a regular check-in is great for employees who aren’t good at bringing stuff to your attention in a timely manner.

      1. Bonky*

        Oh, I do: weekly check-ins, ongoing discussion through the week, feedback in all directions. Prioritising, though, is occasionally something I sometimes find I think we have licked where it turns out we don’t. I do proactively discuss them, but there are occasions where it’s seemed blindingly obvious to me what’s needed, but not to the person at the sharp end; or where previous discussions have been set aside by the person doing the work for one reason or another.

    2. Koko*

      I ask my report to send me a list of her projects once a week, and in that email she is also to rate her workload as either 1 – “I need more work to do,” 2 – “I have enough to work on but have breathing room if something urgent came up,” 3 – “I am at max capacity and can’t take on anything new,” or 4 – “I cannot get everything done this week please HALP.”

      My report does a different type of work than I do, and she juggles so many projects concurrently that even staying on top of her project list I often couldn’t have told you how many hours each project was taking by itself, which meant I didn’t know when to throttle other department’s requests for her or when to seek out new things for her. But rather than me trying to become expert on that, I just have her make the assessment for me and I try to keep her around a “2.”

    3. Sparrow*

      I went to my boss to ask this just a couple of weeks ago. Of course, I waited until the point where I was about to have a full-on breakdown over the workload, which I do not recommend. The blessing to let some items sit for a while made a huge difference. I am still completely drowning in work, but I have less anxiety about not getting everything done.

      1. PABJ*

        I like my boss in a lot of ways, but she made it very clear that she’s not going to help me with figuring out priorities. I asked her one time when I had a lot of stuff on my plate and she basically looked at me like I had two heads and said “Just get it done”. So my basic approach now is to work on what I think are the most urgent priorities until she says “we need to work on X.” Sometimes her use of “we” annoys me a bit because she really means “you”. Organization is not her strong point.

        1. Collingwood21*

          One of my pet hates is people saying “can we” when they mean “I want you to do this for me”. I have no issue with being asked to do the work, just wish you would be direct about it!

          1. Anne Hoffman*

            I agree. I’ve got a manager that uses “we” all the time. I want the person who specifies I or you etc. that’s my preference. I’m 6 months in and very disappointed in my choice to move across the country for this job. My impression of the manager is that she acts and talks like she is the good old girl who has around forever and her husband is a “farmer” so she’s the salt of the earth. Yeah, right, I think she is much more thin-skinned about my comments and interactions with me.
            Just a quick example, I started in October and I had traveled across the country for the job. I was focused on finding a place to live less than a 30 minute drive preferably closer to the existing office. Unfortunately I wasn’t finding anything I liked. The Manager said she was going to move the office to a community college location about 30 minutes south. So through word of month, I found a temporary rental unit in a great location that is about 16 miles from the second location. It’s 40 miles to the original office location. But all this time she never moved the office to the second location that means I’m driving 40 miles each way and about 50 minutes each way. The cost of this driving is not covered by the organization, I’m paying in gas and my time.
            Here’s the point, she’s now found another place for a location much closer to her home but in a small town with nothing around, pretty depressing actually, in an old dingy little office. The distance is less than the original office location but further then the second option. But because it is rural backroads, it will take slightly less time than the 40 miles I currently drive.
            So she kept mentioning this to me but I stayed neutral and didn’t give feedback because I’m not pleased about the choice. Finally one day, I said I’d like to mention something about the office change. I thought about a comparison between the current location and the new location concerning features of the office. I try to always take food with me for lunch at my desk. But she usually drives around the corner to a grocery store she likes and gets take out or to a fast food place. So I said (I’ve only briefly seen the proposed office location once in October and I’ve not been back since), that in comparison this would not convenient for her because there’s no place for to quickly go and get lunch. Well she was offended by this comparison. She stated that there are places 3-5 miles away that she can go to.
            I’m sorry this is long winded but this type of interaction has been going on for the past 6 months. I’m pretty stressed out, unsatisfied, and already looking. In addition it turns out the organization’s funding is very shaky. If budgets are cut, I’m sure I’ll be one of the first to go.
            This entire time there’s been almost no one HR resources internally because they don’t really have an HR person. But just the other day for the first time, the manager mentioned something about my review is coming up next month. There’s been nothing about reviews this entire time. I believe that she has been keeping track now to develop a case against me due to a series of actions I’ve noticed that she’s done. I also keep track of email threads and condescending comments that she has made. I’m not going to try and help her be a good manager because I’m not invested enough at this time. Any feedback would be great.

  3. Emotionally Neutral Grad*

    This is a really great article. I like Alison’s strategy of approaching from a perspective of openness and positivity while leaving the tips flexible for dealing with a particular manager’s communication or work style.

  4. Mimmy*

    As always, these are very helpful. It reaffirms for me that it is completely okay to make sure there is clarity and honesty between you and your supervisor.

    One question though: Any suggestions for those who may have difficulty with #5? Sure, it’s easy for me to say “thank you for the feedback, it’s useful to hear” but deep down, I want to cry or give a defensive response.

    1. fposte*

      I think most of us want to do that deep down :-). Say the right thing in the moment and then give yourself some space before you come back and reflect on it.

      1. BF50*

        Or if you can’t say it in the moment, come back and say it later.

        “Last week we discussed my tendency to do XXX. It was hard to hear, but I wanted you to know that I’m working on it and I appreciate the feedback.”

        And if even that is hard, you can put that info into an email. Face to face is better, but email is better than nothing.

    2. Koko*

      What worked for me was recognizing that getting critical feedback was an unavoidable/necessary part of becoming a top-tier employee, and that my bosses were doing me a favor by telling me what I needed to improve to progress to the next level.

      Of course it helps that I have sane and supportive bosses who also see critical feedback as unavoidable/necessary, so when they give me critical feedback I know that it doesn’t mean they’re unhappy with me or think I don’t deserve my job or anything.

      Here’s a story that may encourage you: The year I had a new skip-level manager, when it came time for annual reviews I rated myself with a high score because I knew I had knocked it out of the park in terms of hitting or exceeding all my KPIs. But in the qualitative section, I was very self-critical and went into detail about mistakes I had made, what I’d learned from them, and how I was working to fix the root causes. Both the score I gave myself and the qualitative assessment were honest – because even a top performer makes mistakes and needs to be able to learn from them.

      My manager agreed with my high score and my new skip-level told my manager that she was impressed by my commitment to improve my performance and my awareness of where I had room to grow. That got my skip-level in my corner, advocating for me and seeing me as someone with advancement/leadership potential because she knows I’m a person who wants to do the best job I can do–not just work to KPI minimums or sweep my mistakes under a rug to justify a high score. The higher level you get to, the more important it becomes to be comfortable with your mistakes–nobody makes zero mistakes, it’s what you learn from them that matters.

    3. myswtghst*

      I’ve found it really helpful to have a few responses like Alison’s suggestion in my pocket, so to speak, so I can respond in an effective way even if I am feeling incredibly frustrated / defensive inside. If it helps, you can say something “Thanks for the feedback – I really appreciate it. I’d like to take some time to think it over, so would it be okay if we table this til [our next one-on-one / next week / etc…] to talk through it further?”

      I had to do this last week when something I’d been working on for several weeks and gotten loads of positive feedback on from 2/3 of my team was presented in a meeting, and 2 team members who were seeing it for the first time got super negative. Since I was working from home, my poor husband had to hear me rail about it after the meeting, but on the call I thanked them for their feedback and suggested we talk more in our next meeting.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Here’s my second plug today for Thanks for the Feedback. It has all sorts of advice on how to shift how you think about and respond to feedback. The biggest thing I’ve learned is to try not to take any of it personally (even if what’s being said is entirely personal in nature).

      Right after I graduated from college and entered the white-collar workforce, I had a hard time taking feedback on my writing (this is what happens when you’re trained to fear red ink and are constantly praised for your writing when it actually needs work). Seeing things marked up made me feel like a failure who had wasted her manager’s time.

      But then I had a brain shift and realized that it was part of learning a specific kind of writing, and both my writing and my willingness to take feedback improved dramatically. This brain shift became important because I later went into a field where it’s normal to have your writing, etc., torn apart as part of your everyday tasks. Koko’s right—being able to take critical feedback is crucial to advancement. But it also helps you learn how to filter feedback for reasonableness, too.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      It does get easier with practice and time.

      The feedback I really can’t deal with well is when the boss lies. I think it’s because I know I am toast here.
      That is the worst case scenario in my books. Barring that problem then things get a bit easier.

      One thing I found helpful is to realize we are fairly transparent to each other. The longer you work with someone the more you know them and they know you. In some cases it’s just easier to cut to the truth, “Yeah, I messed up the X report this week because I am still a bit rattle from my accident on Monday.” Then offer a reasonable attempt at a solution. “I will just double/triple check things until I feel better.” In this example, half the time the boss knows the mistake happened because of being rattled over the accident. Better to drag it out into the light of day and build a plan. The boss is relieved and life goes on.

      Oddly, I have found that making a plan to prevent a mistake from occurring again actually helped me to deal with feed back better. I was solving my own puzzle, so to speak.
      Additionally, committing to NOT making the same mistake twice was very helpful. I have kept this one for life and I still get comments from bosses, “You never make the same mistake twice.”

      This can be hard sometimes because I don’t understand how the mistake happened. I have to put in the time to figure it out. Sometimes this is hours, sometimes this is several hours each day for days. omg. It’s the learning curve. You take a mistake apart, look at the pieces and then you have understanding that is yours to keep. And sometimes you can show/teach others. (One job I had, I was able to teach almost anything because I think I made EVERY mistake in the book. I could fix almost anything people did because I had to fix it when I messed it up myself earlier.)

      It’s okay to cry- LATER. I have done that, too. If I feel myself wanting to get defensive, I try to do less talking until I have had time to mull things over. These things happen less and less as the years roll on. I think we get used to it, or we compare it to other experiences and get a sense of proportion that way.

      It’s funny, I used to think it was the end of the world to get fired on the spot. It was my biggest fear. Actually the thing I SHOULD have feared is that they would make me STAY and work it through. ha! Firing is a moment, then it’s over. Working things through is a part of keeping a job. There is always something to work at.

  5. Epsilon Delta*

    I’m a crier, so I sympathize (although I haven’t yet had to face feedback at work that made me cry). If you look calm on the outside, Alison’s script is probably fine even if you feel upset. If you’re showing an emotional response it’s probably best to take a breath and briefly acknowledge it. “Thank you for the feedback. I know I look a little upset right now, but it’s really useful to hear.” And then what fposte said, come back to the feedback when you feel calmer.

  6. Billy*

    Meeting tip: At the conclusion of a meeting, give a brief summary of who is going to do what, optionally by when

  7. MacAilbert*

    #2 is good, but what about those times where the boss is asking something fundamentally not doable? Like, the other week my boss decided our dilapidated old merchandise fixtures cluttering the stockroom needed to go into the dumpster, but they had to be cut up to fit. He told me to go to the store next door and get an axe out of petty cash, and I had to explain why that wouldn’t work (Long story short, the wood was too soft and would have absorbed too much of the force to make an axe feasible, a d there wasn’t a safe working area). Luckily, my boss and I are habitually very blunt with each other and he trusts me on this kinda stuff, so I just said we needed a saw and why. With most bosses, that straightforward approach won’t work, and most bosses don’t like being told no, even if it has to be done. How would a situation like mine be handled with a boss who doesn’t want to be questioned when giving orders?

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I’d look around really fast to see if there was a saw and say, “Oh, look. Here is a saw, let me try this and it might save you the expense of buying an ax.”
      Usually people like this, who don’t like being questioned, appreciate being told not to spend money.
      If there was no saw, I might volunteer to bring my saw in from home tomorrow. I’d be motivated to do this because I could seriously hurt myself if I used an ax. And the boss would still be pleased not to spend the bucks.

      The general idea is to find a way to show them how it is to THEIR advantage to follow your advice. You have to think FAST.

      1. MacAilbert*

        >I’d be motivated to do this because I could seriously hurt myself if I used an ax.

        Oh, yes. We have concrete floors. I was not swinging an axe around.

  8. Gadfly*

    All very useful for sane, functional workspaces. It just is all those other ones where they don’t work or other questions like “if my manager only exists on paper, how do I tell them any thing ever?” become more useful (couple of old jobs back…)

  9. 'Tis I, LeClerc*

    1 and 2 don’t work with my boss. Believe me, I’ve tried.
    1: If I propose we do Y, he will say “no, we will do X.” Or he’ll say “Let’s do Y” and a week later he changes his mind and I have to do Z instead.

    2: I’m actually quite good at foreseeing possible problems that might happen. My boss only sees them when they actually happen. And he doesn’t listen to anybody but himself. So he ignores my warnings about possible issues, and goes ahead with his ideas. We, the underlings, have to just follow along. And of course, when the shit hits the fan, we have to re-do tons of work. Dude is overworked, and it’s his own fault.

  10. Ursula*

    The problem at my job with the prioritization question is that my bosses don’t seem to understand that prioritizing with strict deadlines sometimes means something won’t get done. Whenever my team is behind, they ask if they can help with prioritization, as if order of work were somehow the key to getting all the work done when there is simply too much to do before deadline. I’ve even tested it by giving them the list of priorities I used and asking them what they’d like to change, to which they said… nothing.

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