You walk out of your boss’ office after a detailed discussion about the PDQ Project. You sit down at your computer, take out your notes, and begin amending the project plan. Suddenly that fruitful discussion has morphed into cloudy confusion. You’re not at all sure you really “get” what she said. What now? Walk back in and request more time? Send her an email with a list of questions? No matter what, you are pretty sure you’re going to look foolish or be an annoyance.

How could this situation be avoided?

Confirm who “owns” the agenda item. Sometimes meeting with the boss can lead to ownership confusion, particularly if your supervisor is enthusiastic and talkative. You may misinterpret his zeal for wanting to be in charge of the topic. Clarify in your own mind that this is something you’re taking the lead on, and then act accordingly.

Preparation is key. Decide in advance what outputs (results) you want from the meeting with your boss. Then outline the general flow of the conversation that will lead to those outputs. Consider in advance how the conversation might wander, and prepare a response, like “I think that’s a great topic for the team, and I’ll put it on the agenda for Friday’s meeting.”

Stay focused, and do it nicely. You may not be hearing what you need from your boss due to your own habit of interrupting. Resist the urge to push the conversation too quickly by interrupting your supervisor mid-sentence. Do ask her to stay on topic with you, but exercise patience. Sometimes the rambling road has a rich payoff, and sometimes it’s a dead end. It’s your job to recognize both and guide the conversation accordingly.

Ask clarifying questions. You won’t look simple-minded if you ask follow-up questions, like “Can you give me an example?” or “Are there other ways to apply this idea?” or “Can you tell me more about that?”

Allow for thinking time. It’s okay for you to say, “I’m going to take a moment to gather my thoughts.” Use that time to mentally organize what you’ve heard, jot notes and ask questions that clarify. Likewise, allow your boss space to process what you’ve said in order to respond appropriately.

Close the loop. Simply stated, this means restate what you’ve heard your boss say and ask him to do the same. It’s not so simple to do, particularly if you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve already got the message and don’t need to bother feeding it back. Just remember the consequences of confusion. Exercise the discipline of reviewing your understanding, and you won’t have to endure the embarrassment of clarifying later.

How can you gracefully regroup when you discover that you didn’t really “get” what your boss was communicating?

Get other help. There may be other people who can help you understand what you missed the first time. Check this out, but recognize that you might not be able to avoid the conversation with the boss.

Own it. Don’t try to fool the boss into thinking you got it the first time around. Admit that upon further thought, there were some points that you missed. Above all, don’t accuse her of being confusing, just because you were confused.

Prepare again. Figure out the one or two points you need to clarify, and that’s it. (If you missed more than that, you need a wholesale re-evaluation of your communication skills.) Ask for 10 or 15 minutes of the boss’ time and stick to that.

Say thanks. Thank your boss for his time, and tell him what you’re doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again. You don’t need to give him your plan in detail, but say something like, “For our next meeting, I am going to take more notes and regroup at the end of our time together to make sure I got it.”

Don’t do it again. Not catching on to some of the key ideas once is understandable, twice is annoying and three times gets you pegged as a bad listener and time waster.

We’ve all been there at one time or another – either as the confused or the confuser. Work on your own clarity of communication, and you’ll probably find that you’re less perplexed by others as well. Remember that what is so obviously obvious to you isn’t obvious to others, and vice versa.

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